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Group forms to mediate conflict over sexual assault cases

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis held a press conference Tuesday announcing their partnership in the creation of a Travis County Sexual Assault Prevention and Healing Work Group. Eckhardt and Davis were joined in support by Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez and SAFE Alliance co-CEO Kelly White.

Eckhardt said the work group’s first priority will be to focus on standardizing the process of collecting, aggregating and analyzing data on how reported sexual assault is addressed in the criminal justice context. Since the majority of sexual assaults are never reported to the authorities, Eckhardt said the group will also work to expand available resources for all victims of sexual assault whether or not they have reported an incident.

While a number of local organizations have long been working to address the needs of victims, Eckhardt said this group will act as a uniquely neutral space for discussion without an emphasis on any particular approach such as advocacy, prosecution or law enforcement. The point is to hear every concern and “bring in some voices that we haven’t heard from at all at this point.”

Davis will be acting as co-leader and neutral convener of the group. As a state senator, she authored a bill in 2011 requiring a statewide audit that revealed a backlog of approximately 20,000 untested rape kits. That law was a milestone in the ongoing fight for justice for sexual assault victims. Davis now leads Deeds Not Words, a nonprofit that empowers women to make change in their communities.

The work group has no scheduled meetings at this point, but Eckhardt has asked Austin Public Safety Commission Chair Rebecca Webber to allow for a briefing at the board’s meeting on Monday, Feb. 4. According to a written statement from Eckhardt, the briefing will outline an asset map of available services for victims of sexual assault, discuss use of best practices in sexual assault cases and lay out progress on recent efforts to standardize data aggregation and analysis.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley is also on the meeting’s unfinalized agenda to discuss the results of an audit conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety which found that about two-thirds of sexual assault cases deemed eligible for exceptional clearance following examination by the Austin Police Department were actually misclassified.

That audit was requested by APD following an interview with former Austin Police Sgt. Elizabeth Donegan in November in which she claimed that superiors within the department had pressured her to close cases by exceptional clearance, a classification typically reserved for cases in which a suspect dies, a victim is not prepared to speak with investigators, or a prosecutor does not bring charges.

The discussion at the Feb. 4 meeting is meant to represent an “early and continuing building of trust and convening of stakeholders,” Eckhardt said. “There’s going to be some very good work done and some good information laid out.”

A sexual assault federal class action lawsuit against Travis County and the city of Austin is the impetus behind the sudden formation of the county work group. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel will soon be ruling on the lawsuit, which now includes complaints by eight women who claim that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and APD have both failed victims of sexual assault.

Due to the lawsuit and the recent audit, Austin City Council will be considering a resolution Thursday to direct City Manager Spencer Cronk to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of at least 200 sexual assault cases. Travis County, for its part, has not yet committed to an investigation into the allegations made against the DA’s office. Eckhardt said her goal for the work group is for people on all sides of the issue to be able to come together. Her written statement reads, “After the ruling and irrespective of the outcome, involved parties will be better able to put down their swords and exchange them for ploughshares.”

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