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Wednesday, June 20, 2018 by Audrey McGlinchy

Lawsuit accuses Austin, Travis County of gender bias in handling of sexual assaults

Three women have sued the city of Austin and Travis County, alleging their sexual assault cases were inadequately handled because of their gender. The class-action lawsuit claims that sexual assault survivors “have been denied equal access to justice and equal protection of the law.”

The suit, filed Monday in federal court, was first reported by The Austin Chronicle.

“Perpetrators of sexual assault are never held accountable,” Jennifer Ecklund, a partner with the law firm Thompson & Knight LLP, said. That puts female victims of sexual assault, as well as other women in Austin, at continued risk, she said.

At various points, the lawsuit alleges, the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office mishandled the sexual assault complaints of the three plaintiffs – Amy Smith (a pseudonym), Julie Ann Nitsch and Marina Conner. The suit also claims that because of a backlog of rape kits, the women’s cases couldn’t proceed quickly. (The backlog recently hit zero.)

“The integrity of the criminal justice system is of utmost importance to the City and our law enforcement partners,” a city of Austin spokesperson said in an email. “We are aware of the issues raised in this lawsuit and will be reviewing the details as we determine our next steps.”

The suit also alleges that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office rarely prosecutes sexual assault cases. According to the complaint, fewer than 10 cases of sexual assault are prosecuted each year, despite the more than 1,000 cases reported yearly.

The suit asks for government employees to receive training on how to properly handle sexual assault cases and to better communicate to survivors about when their rape kits will be tested.

Travis County did not respond to a request for comment.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Callie Hernandez/KUT.

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