A Suit on Behalf of 6,000 Women Decries Law Enforcement’s Handling of Sexual Assault Cases
In Travis County, detectives refused training that would have helped them interview victims of trauma.
In 2008, Amy Smith* was violently raped when she was a student at the University of Texas. The assault occurred after Smith spent a night out in downtown Austin. A man pulled her into his car, took her to a hotel and raped her. Afterward, as he drove Smith from the hotel, she escaped and found her way to a nearby hospital, where she met with police.
Smith described the rapist as a heavyset Black man with dreadlocks who drove a white car. But soon afterward, police identified a Hispanic man who owned a white vehicle as her assailant. Smith insisted that he wasn’t the culprit, but police tested his DNA anyway and questioned the veracity of her account by asking whether she slept with other men that night.
That was not the only misstep that the Austin police and Travis County district attorney’s office made in their investigation of Smith’s sexual assault. When police identified an accurate DNA match—a convicted thief, Lloyd Tyrone Robinson, who fit Smith’s description—prosecutors waited four years before moving forward with the case.
Then, a year after Robinson was indicted, they dropped the charges in order to retest the DNA. Later, a DNA match was confirmed, but the district attorney’s office dropped the charges because Robinson faced similar charges in another county. In the end, no one was brought to justice in Smith’s rape.
Smith is the lead plaintiff in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June against the city of Austin and its police and prosecutors on behalf of roughly 6,000 women who reported their assaults in Travis County but whose cases were marred by law enforcement failures that include failing to submit sexual assault kits and disproportionately dismissing cases or refusing to prosecute sexual assault cases when the victim is female.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, an Austin woman who was sexually assaulted in 2010 as she slept in her residence, called the police but they entered the apartment “as though there was an active shooter inside” and then questioned her about “what she had been wearing, and why she lived in a bad neighborhood.”
The lawsuit claims that the mishandling of sexual assault cases such as Smith’s causes victims to endure additional trauma. “These repeated insults amounted to a final conclusion for Ms. Smith,” the complaint states, “justice is unavailable to her … she has endured years of trauma at the hands of the defendants for nothing.”
Sexual assault victims in Travis County and nationally share Smith’s experience in the criminal justice system. Each year, over 1,000 women in the county report that they are the victims of violent sexual crime, according to the complaint, but fewer than 10 of such cases are prosecuted each year. In Memphis, Tennessee, dozens of women are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city and its police department that claims police detectives routinely closed sexual assault cases without sending rape kits to the state lab for serology or DNA testing.
In New Orleans, domestic violence and sexual assault victims sued the district attorney’s office in federal court for its use of fraudulent subpoenas to induce cooperation against their assailants. In mid-October, four sexual assault victims in Utah filed a joint petition to the state’s supreme court “challenging the decision by local prosecutors not to file charges in their cases.”
Clearance rates for rape, meanwhile, are dismal at many police departments. In 2016, Cleveland police cleared about 8 percent of rape cases. Widespread injustice for sexual assault victims is reflected in a 2013 study from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that found that 15 percent of victims who did not report sexual violence crimes from 2005-15 said they believed the police could not or would not do anything to help.
In early 2018, Smith turned to Dallas-based attorney Jennifer Ecklund for help. A former social worker, Ecklund researched sexual assault cases in Travis County over the last decade. While Ecklund did her research, several other sexual assault survivors contacted her to share similar stories.
“At that point, we decided a class action would probably be the most appropriate mechanism because what we were seeing seemed to be a pattern of behavior across both the police department and the DA’s office that was impacting all women,” Ecklund said. (Indeed, in August, Ecklund filed an amended class-action complaint with new plaintiffs, including a woman who said she was abducted by traffickers and raped but was met with eyerolls and comments such as “You seem a little drunk” when she went to the Austin police.)
Ecklund discovered that police routinely failed to even submit DNA for testing. “There was a huge backlog of cases that were never, ever getting tested for a decade at a time sometimes,” she said.
She also learned that police detectives refused training that would have helped them interview victims of trauma. As a result, the police engaged in “victim blaming,” such as asking women questions about how much they had to drink, what they were wearing, and why they might have been in a certain neighborhood during an assault.
The Travis County sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office declined to comment on pending litigation. They have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that the claims made by the plaintiffs did not constitute civil rights violations. In a statement, a spokesperson for the city of Austin told The Appeal that it believed that the conduct of its officers was appropriate.
“The integrity of the criminal justice system is of utmost importance to the city and our law enforcement partners,” the spokesperson said. “We are aware of the issues raised in this lawsuit but are confident that all agencies involved have acted appropriately.”
On Oct. 22, Ecklund filed a response to the motions to dismiss by arguing in part that district attorneys do “not have prosecutorial immunity for any other actions, including investigative acts or administrative acts” alleged in the complaint and that the plaintiffs have a valid civil rights complaint because “the City and County have committed (and continue to commit) constitutional violations by implementing, promoting, or maintaining policies, practices, and/or customs that intentionally discriminate against female victims of sexual assault.”
Indeed, the plaintiffs alleged in their original complaint that the police and district attorney dedicate more resources to other violent crimes than to female sexual assault victims and disproportionately dismiss cases or refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases when the victims are female.
“The one case that was tried in the year preceding our lawsuit, it was a male victim,” Ecklund said. “In the years prior to that, the four cases that were tried in that period of time, two of them were male victims.”
In the last year, victims of sexual abuse across the country have shared their stories publicly as part of movements such as #MeToo and have started a national dialogue about the importance of believing women as well as the absence of justice for women after they are sexually assaulted.
When so few sexual assaults are prosecuted, “it raises a real question about what could be to blame for that,” Ecklund said.
The state’s inability to hold anyone accountable for harming Smith has come at a steep personal cost: In the decade since her rape, she has endured “serious effects of multiple traumas” which have prevented her “from having any kind of a normal life,” according to the complaint. Because she suffers from extreme anxiety, she has had trouble working outside her home. Her interpersonal relationships also suffered.
Perhaps worse, the complaint notes, during the years Smith sought justice in her case “nothing was stopping him [her assailant] from assaulting others like he had Ms. Smith.”
Indeed, since Smith was raped in 2008, her alleged rapist was accused of committing at least two sexual assaults in Houston.
*Smith’s name was changed in the complaint to protect her privacy.