Rape kits and other forensic evidence of sexual assault will need to be preserved for 15 years in Massachusetts under a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed Wednesday, a move that supporters hailed as a step toward bringing justice to rape survivors.
"I remember walking out of the hospital the morning after I finished my rape kit examination, and feeling so alone," said Amanda Nguyen, a Harvard graduate who founded the nonprofit Rise to advocate for the rights of sexual assault survivors like herself. "I remember feeling more despair after repeatedly having to fight the Massachusetts criminal justice system to save my kit from destruction."
Previous state law required sexual assault evidence to be preserved for at least six months in cases where formal criminal charges had not been filed. After six months, the department or agency in possession of the evidence could dispose of it unless the victim asked that it be kept, a process that needed to be repeated every six months in order to continue preserving the materials.
The new law will take effect in 90 days, changing a practice that Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said she did not know the origin of.
"Six months is a very short period of time for a survivor to think about what just happened to him or her and then decide to move forward and then to have to carry that burden forward every six months," Polito said. "Just to remember to do it and then the trauma of having to think about doing it has now been removed from this process, but I don't have an answer to why six months, and I think the answer could be it's a random number that really is not relevant to the circumstances that are at hand."
The new 15-year timeframe corresponds with the statute of limitations for rape and sexual assault.
Baker said he had asked Polito, who chairs the Governor's Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, to walk him through the details of the bill.
"At the end I looked at her and said, 'Well, why did it take so long for this to happen?' " Baker said, his words partially drowned out by laughter from the crowd assembled in his office for the signing ceremony. "I don't have a good answer for that one but I know many times it does require somebody to start the conversation."
After the governor signed the bill, Nguyen hugged him and thanked him "for listening to our voices."
Nguyen and other advocates, Polito, Public Safety Secretary Daniel Bennett, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and a host of lawmakers — including Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Fernandes, House Minority Leader Brad Jones, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and Sens. Michael Moore, Eric Lesser and Cynthia Creem — gathered in Baker's office as he signed the bill.
Speaking at a press conference after the signing, Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat who sponsored the original legislation, said that one in five women are victims of sexual assault, and she and other lawmakers plan to continue filing bills to prevent such crimes and help victims.
"Watch out, because we're coming, and you're going to see legislation rolled out immediately in January, and we're going to make a difference, and we're going to end rape culture in this commonwealth," Farley-Bouvier said.
She told the News Service that the Legislature's women's caucus, outside advocates and the violence prevention council that Polito chairs will work together to determine whether it makes more sense to file one omnibus bill or separate pieces of legislation.
The new evidence preservation law (H.4364) also calls for the director of the state police's crime laboratory to report by January 2018 on the feasibility of "establishing a single location or multiple regional locations for the retention and preservation of all forensic evidence collected in the commonwealth."
Next month, the Executive Office of Public Safety will formally take control of a one-time warehouse building in Milford, which will be converted into an evidence storage facility, Bennett said. The facility will include refrigeration systems so that rape kits and similar materials can be preserved there.
"The expectation would be, just as the bill says, that at some point in the not too distant future, that that would be a centralized storage facility for evidence not only of this type but also the State Police and the court system in the future," Bennett said.
Individual police departments will continue to maintain rape kits in the meantime, Bennett said.
A former prosecutor, Bennett said the new law makes it more possible for people who commit sexual assault to be punished.
"When you're trying to prove a crime, to go in front of the jury and say we've thrown the most important evidence in that crime away is putting a situation, a burden on the victim, which is insurmountable," he said.
This article was originally published on October 19, 2016.