Democrat state House candidate assails rape kit backlog

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Democrat Steven Buccini speaks during a press conference in downtown Greensboro on Tuesday. (photo by Jordan Green)

Backed by a handful of supporters, a Democratic candidate for state House took aim at sexual assault — and his Republican opponent — during a press conference at Governmental Plaza in downtown Greensboro on Tuesday.

Steven Buccini, the Democratic candidate for House District 59, decried the state’s backlog of 15,160 untested DNA rape kits. One of his supporters, Brandi Collins-Calhoun, spoke about her experience as a sexual-assault survivor during the press conference. She said she was sexually assaulted as a sophomore in college in Greensboro. She said she didn’t report her experience to the police because she didn’t believe anything would be done. She added that learning about the number of untested DNA rape kits reinforced her fear about sexual violence.

“A lot of people don’t realize when things go unnoticed, and things go unsaid, it lets abusers know that they can get away with it,” Collins-Calhoun said. “For example, after [Brett] Kavanaugh [was appointed to the Supreme Court], the person who assaulted me as a child felt comfortable enough to send me a Facebook request. I feel like this is really similar. When people feel like rape kits aren’t being tested and people aren’t accountable, assaults continue to happen.”

Attorney General Josh Stein recently announced a $2 million federal grant that will allow the state to test about 1,400 rape kits. Yet, that’s less than a tenth of the overall backlog.

“North Carolina has one of the dubious distinctions of having one of the largest backlogs of untested DNA rape kits in the country,” Buccini said. “This evidence has a proven track record of solving crimes, including some that occurred decades ago. These untested rape kits deny the victims the justice they so desperately deserve. The Republicans crow about how they’ve added $2 billion to the Rainy Day Fund, yet no money has been allocated to clearing this backlog. Mr. Hardister, with his role in Republican leadership, must be held accountable for choosing to give tax breaks to folks making over $200,000 a year instead of holding criminals accountable for their crimes.”

Hardister, who serves as the majority whip in the House, did not respond to phone messages for this story before deadline.

Buccini also faulted the General Assembly for what he described as an inadequate process for handling sexual harassment complaints.

“Finally, at the General Assembly, which should be leading by example and setting the example for folks and businesses across the state, it’s been reported that there are a handful of elected officials who are serial sexual harassers. Yet the current reporting system for holding these representatives accountable is both outdated and toothless. Complaints cannot be made anonymously, which is imperative when many victims’ livelihoods are based on professional relationships with these very lawmakers. And complaints are referred to a committee of lawmakers themselves, which is like the fox guarding the henhouse. Instead, complaints of this nature should be handled by a neutral, third-party investigator to ensure all claims are treated equally and fairly.”

UPDATE, Oct. 16, 5:14 p.m.: Rep. Hardister responded to concerns about the the General Assembly’s handling of sexual assault, including the rape kit backlog and the institution’s system of handling complaints against lawmakers and other staff, in an interview with City Beat.

Hardister said he’s “well aware” of the backlog in untested rape test kits, adding that he’s committed to reducing it. He said the legislature has asked Attorney General Stein to provide a report on the cost of testing the kits, and he likes an idea by Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes to create regional labs, perhaps through the university system, to spread out the work.

“There needs to be additional funding,” Hardister said. “We’re in the process of looking at it and seeing how much funding is needed. We’ll dive into that in January, along with the regional crime labs. I think there’s a definite commitment from the General Assembly to address the problem.”

Hardister also said he’s open to reviewing and updating the process for handling complaints of sexual assault within the General Assembly.

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