JUSTICE

‘No Justice at All’: Class-Action Lawsuit Says Austin Officials Failed Female Rape Victims

A federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges that authorities in Austin, Texas, and Travis County are dismissing sexual-assault claims and allowing cases to languish for years.

Eric Gay/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In 2008, Amy Smith* was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when a man forced her into his car, drove her to a hotel, and repeatedly raped her in his room, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Monday.

She reported the assault to the police—but the trauma only continued from there, as she endured a 10-year struggle for justice that ultimately resulted in her rape case being dismissed, the court papers state.

Smith is one of three women who are suing the city of Austin, Travis County, and local authorities for unspecified damages, claiming female victims of sexual assault “have been denied equal access to justice and equal protection of the law.”

“In short, the women of Travis County have been failed by the people sworn to protect them—the government officials and actors who have instead disbelieved, dismissed, and denigrated female victims of sexual assault, failed to have DNA evidence tested for years at a time, and refused to investigate or prosecute cases of sexual assault against female survivors because juries purportedly do not like ‘he said, she said’ cases,” the lawsuit states.

Among many allegations, the lawsuit accuses authorities of failing to properly train government employees how to handle sex-assault cases, mishandling rape kits, and devoting more resources to other violent crimes. The current and former district attorneys of Travis County are also named in the suit, along with the current and former police chiefs of Austin.

“Defendants’ unconstitutional and discriminatory conduct subjects female victims of sexual assault in Travis County and all women of Travis County to continued risk at the hands of perpetrators who are never held accountable,” it says.

The lawsuit notes that fewer than 10 cases of sexual assault are prosecuted in Travis County each year, despite over 1,000 women coming forward to report violent sexual crimes.

“And in 2017, only a single case of sexual assault—against a male victim—was prosecuted through trial,” it says.

The lawsuit also accuses the Austin Police Department of failing to believe some victims who come forward—or, in other cases, suggesting they bear some responsibility for their alleged assaults. A wall in the department’s sexual-assault unit even featured photos of women who had made what officers “unilaterally” determined to be false reports, the papers allege.

“Officers posted pictures of these ‘debunked’ female accusers on the wall as a matter of pride, as trophies of their ‘investigations,’” the lawsuit says.

After Smith’s alleged rape, she went to the hospital for a sexual-assault exam and discussed her attacker with police, describing him as a “heavy set, black man with dreadlocks.” Cops first picked up a Hispanic man at a local hotel and tested his DNA, even though Smith was sure he wasn’t her attacker, she said.

“The analyst there purportedly found a three DNA mixture—the Hispanic man, an unknown woman, and Ms. Smith,” the lawsuit says. “Despite telling Police detectives that it was impossible for her DNA to be on the Hispanic man, the Police began to question her truthfulness.”

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DNA from Smith’s rape kit led authorities to another man, Tyrone Robinson, a convicted thief who had checked into the same hotel she was raped at, the documents say. In 2009, he was charged with her kidnapping and rape, but the case languished from there for years.

Eventually, another DNA lab ruled out the Hispanic man as Smith’s attacker, and charges were refiled against Robinson in 2014. “But [Travis County District Attorney Rosemary] Lehmberg did not aggressively pursue the case, upon information and belief, to avoid having to explain the initial flawed DNA analysis to a jury,” the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, Robinson allegedly sexually assaulted two others in the Houston area and was charged there. The charges against him in Travis County were dropped in 2017. “Ten years have now passed since Ms. Smith was kidnapped and raped in Travis County, and given the status of her case—which has been dismissed—it is unlikely Ms. Smith will ever have a day in court to bring her rapist to justice,” the lawsuit says.

Another woman, Julie Ann Nitsch, alleges in the lawsuit that she was raped in 2010 after returning home from a party in her neighborhood.

“Nitsch awoke to find a man on top of her, pinning her down to her bed and licking her face,” the court papers say. “She did not recognize the man who was sexually assaulting her, and she screamed repeatedly and tried to escape.”

Her attacker ran off, and Nitsch’s roommate called the Austin police, whom she thought would help track down the intruder. Instead, APD entered Nitsch’s apartment as though it was “an active shooter scene” and interrogated her with a series of questions about what she was drinking, what she was wearing, and why she resided in a “bad neighborhood,” the court filing states. Cops didn’t test evidence at her home for DNA, and never followed up to give her the results of her rape kit, according to the lawsuit.

“Though Ms. Nitsch grew frustrated with the lack of contact from Defendants, she tried to move on,” it says. “In the ensuing years, other friends of hers were raped and had similar experiences with the criminal justice system in Travis County. Two of those friends... committed suicide or died of accidental overdoses in the years following their own attacks.”

The third woman listed in the lawsuit is Maria Conner, who says she was raped in a parking garage by a man who’d offered her drugs. “During the attack, Ms. Conner’s cell phone called her friend, who did not answer, and the voicemail recorded Ms. Conner’s cries for help and screams of resistance,” the complaint states.

Afterwards, Conner says she showered to “remove the presence and smell of her attacker”—without knowing that doing so would remove his DNA, according to the lawsuit. Even so, the University of Texas graduate went to a local domestic violence shelter for a rape kit.

Cops managed to track down her alleged rapist when the man texted her, asking if he’d sold her cocaine. He was was arrested and confessed to raping Conner after police caught him through a fake drug deal, the complaint states. But Conner says her rape kit test was put off for months until she received notice in June 2017 that mold had grown on hundreds of rape kits at the DNA lab, the lawsuit claims.

Meanwhile, Conner said she received notice through Facebook that her attacker enrolled at UT Austin.

“She felt incredibly unsafe on campus and grew distracted from her schoolwork, fearing that she would run into her attacker at any moment,” the lawsuit states, adding that she left school and suffered from PTSD and panic attacks.

She returned to college in fall 2017 and called Austin police for an update on her case. That’s when officials told her that DNA had not been found on her rape kit—and that without it, they couldn’t prosecute her alleged attacker.

“Ms. Conner’s case has been dismissed, and her rapist walks free with the confidence that he can rape other women with no repercussions,” the lawsuit states. “There will be no justice for Ms. Conner because the DA’s office refuses to try sexual assault cases without DNA evidence.”

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

— with additional reporting by Olivia Messer

*pseudonym