Politics

Gov. Rick Scott gets personal in calling attention to backlog of untested rape kits

“We are so much safer thanks to this bill,” said South Florida rape survivor Julie Weil, left, after Gov. Rick Scott ceremonially signed a bill aimed at reducing the turnaround time for DNA testing of rape kits at the FDLE Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center, Thursday, April 21, 2016.
“We are so much safer thanks to this bill,” said South Florida rape survivor Julie Weil, left, after Gov. Rick Scott ceremonially signed a bill aimed at reducing the turnaround time for DNA testing of rape kits at the FDLE Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center, Thursday, April 21, 2016. Tampa Bay Times

Gov. Rick Scott got the call no parent wants to hear.

On a Sunday morning, his daughter in her first year of college in Dallas was on the other end of the phone.

“She said, ‘Something very bad happened to me last night,’” Scott said, recounting the story Thursday morning in Tampa where he ceremoniously signed a new law to help speed the process of testing sexual assault kits. “Fortunately she was not raped. But she had a drug put in her drink. It put her in the hospital.”

Whoever put the drug in his daughter’s drink at the party was never caught. Scott said he is just grateful she ended up in the hospital and not the victim of a sexual assault.

“That was a scary time,” Scott said at a press conference at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center.

Scott said he didn’t want to provide more specifics to protect his now 33-year-old daughter’s privacy.

It was the second time in less than a week in which the often-private governor turned personal in talking about legislation.

When he vetoed a controversial alimony bill last Friday, Scott said, “As a husband, father and grandfather, I understand the importance of family and the sensitivity and passion that comes with the subject of family law.” Scott’s mother divorced his father when he was a baby and the governor, who dotes on his four grandsons, recently told reporters that his daughter was going through a divorce.

Scott used the latest personal story as a lead-in to why Florida is becoming increasingly aggressive in testing sexual assault kits faster. In March, the Florida Legislature passed a budget that will boost funding for the state crime lab to process all crime evidence faster — including DNA samples from rape kits. And the budget dedicates more than $2 million this year as part of a three-year effort to reduce a startling backlog of 13,000 untested rape kits in Florida.

The Legislature also passed new legislation directing law enforcement to submit rape kits in a more timely manner for testing to assure the state never gets a backlog in kits like it has today. That new law requires local law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits they collect to a statewide crime lab for forensic testing within 30 days of a sexual assault offense being reported. Testing of the kits would have to be completed within 120 days by crime labs.

Julie Weil, a rape survivor from South Florida who attended the press conference, said she is proud to see the state take a strong stand in attacking the backlog of kits. For five years, the rape prevention advocate said she’s been working to bring attention to the problem. She said if there had been more DNA testing when she was assaulted in 2002, her attacker may have already been behind bars because of other sexual assaults and crimes he had committed.

While picking up her 3-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son, Weil was attacked in a church parking lot. She and her children were kidnapped, and she was raped four times by Michael Siebert, also known as the “Palmetto Bay Rapist,’’ who was later convicted and sentenced to seven life terms in prison.

An FDLE report released in January showed that kits are not sent in for testing for numerous reasons, including a victim who first reported a crime refuses to participate in an investigation or a state attorney’s office decides not to prosecute. In other cases, a suspect pleads guilty so the kit results are never needed for prosecution.

But Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and victims advocates groups have been pushing for testing on all kits because they can help solve other crimes and even identify serial rapists. When the city of Houston tested 6,663 previously untested kits, they found 850 DNA matches that have led to more than two dozen convictions.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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