The Austin Chronicle

Sexual Assault Class Action Suit Adds Five New Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs’ attorney says more than 40 women have reached out since suit was filed

By Sarah Marloff, August 3, 2018, News

Five new plaintiffs have been added to a sexual assault federal class action suit against the city of Austin, Travis County, and local law enforcement. The more robust complaint, which now details eight women's accounts of sexual assault and the subsequent abandonment of their cases by local law enforcement, was filed Wednesday afternoon.

Elizabeth Myers, one of several lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said more than 40 women have reached out since the complaint was filed on June 18. The suit alleges that systemic failures within law enforcement have led to discrimination and mistreatment of women rape survivors in Travis County.

The new accounts illustrate a "far-reaching, systemic problem that needs to be fixed" by the defendants, said Myers, who noted that while each woman's story is different – one was kidnapped and repeatedly raped for 12 hours by three men; another was violently raped by her boyfriend while her child was in the house; a third, assaulted by a nurse during a routine medical exam; a fourth, drugged, raped, and left on train tracks; and the fifth, sexually assaulted by another patient at Austin State Hospital – the common thread is their interaction with the system meant to protect them.

The updated complaint follows four motions to dismiss from the defendants. One motion, filed jointly by D.A. Margaret Moore and her predecessor, Rosemary Lehmberg, argues that the "moral and legal duty of the elected District Attorney [is] not to convict, but to seek justice. ... The District Attorney must exercise prosecutorial discretion to balance the needs of a victim, the rights of an accused, and the safety of the community. In so doing, the District Attorney necessarily makes decisions that some agree with and some do not." It goes on to say the "law affords District Attorneys protection from lawsuits such as this."

The plaintiffs' response asserts: "Every Defendant in this lawsuit is legally required to provide equal protection to the women of Travis County. They have not done so, and for that – and other legal wrongs – they can indeed be held to account." It also calls the claims made in the D.A.s' motion "breathtaking," noting that less than 0.2% of the approximately 1,000 sexual assaults reported annually in the county "proceed to finality" on criminal charges.

Ultimately, the suit seeks an injunction ordering each defendant to properly train and supervise employees handling sexual assault cases; require and enforce trauma-informed approaches; submit, test, and analyze all sexual assault kits obtained by (or sent to) law enforcement; offer survivors a timeline for when they can expect their sexual assault kit to be tested; begin prosecuting cases without DNA evidence; and a string of other initiatives. Myers reiterated that the case is not about the prosecution of individual assailants, but a systemwide change that offers women rape survivors the same respect and dignity given to men who survive rape as well as victims of other violent crimes.

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