Marina Conner was an anthropology major at the University of Texas, a former student council president and high school drill team dancer with “plans to take on the world,” she said.
That was before August 2015, when Conner was raped after a night drinking on Sixth Street.
She’s never been the same since then, she said. After the attack, Conner said she slept with the lights on, and her post-traumatic stress got so bad she had to drop out of school. Adding to her worries: Her attacker was never brought to justice.
A rape kit she submitted sat on the shelves for years as the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab struggled with a backlog of cases and a myriad of other issues. Prosecutors eventually told her there wasn’t enough evidence to put forward a case and stopped returning her calls.
Conner is one of three women suing Travis County officials for their failure to properly investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases. Her hope is the lawsuit will help fix a system she says fails to protect women.
The federal class action lawsuit filed Monday names as defendants the city of Austin, Travis County and five individuals — Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, former Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.
County officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. City of Austin officials said they were reviewing the suit.
“I actually feel that the police and DA were working against me,” Conner told reporters Tuesday. “I felt and feel like I was silenced. None of this would have happened to me if Austin would have made women like me a priority, to let the women of Austin know that they cared for us and for our safety.”
The lawsuit argues that female sexual assault victims in Austin and Travis County have been denied equal protection under the law because officials do not properly train employees on how to handle sexual assault cases and evidence, fail to test sexual assault kits in a timely fashion and prioritize other crimes over sexual assaults against women.
The suit also says that the victims’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures and taking personal property for public use, respectively, were violated after defendants collected DNA evidence to be used for investigative purposes, but then allowed it to sit untested for years.
“People agree to those exams because they believe something will be done,” said Jennifer Ecklund, an attorney for the women. “For thousands, those kits were never even tested.”
In 2016, the Austin Police Department shuttered its DNA lab after a state audit found problems with its techniques. Thousands of rape kits remained untested as of April while private labs continue to tackle the backlog.
Jennifer Laurin, a UT criminal law and criminal procedures professor, said the lawsuit will face several hurdles, including proving that Travis County adopted formal and persistent policies that violated the constitutional rights of women — who make up the bulk of sexual assault victims — and that it did so intentionally.
Laurin said the suit introduces a number of novel arguments, including claiming Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights violations, which are typically invoked by defendants accused of crimes.
“You could see this as part and parcel of the MeToo movement,” Laurin said. “This is victims saying, ‘Our voice and our experience deserves at least the level of respect that defendants, people alleged to be perpetrators, are entitled to in these cases.’”
The lawsuit cites findings from an April study that show that between June 2016 and June 2017, Austin police received more than 1,000 sexual assault reports. Only a handful had been prosecuted and only one had gone to trial in that time, the study says.
“It cannot be acceptable to anybody in this community that only one in a thousand reported sexual assaults gets prosecuted through trial in a year,” Ecklund said. “What we would like to see is change within these institutions that results in more protection for more women, that results in holding rapists accountable and sees that others don’t have to experience the traumatic events that they have experienced or endure retraumatization by watching their cases languish and ultimately be dismissed.”
The other two women who appear as plaintiffs in the lawsuit recounted similar failings in the system that caused their attackers to go free.
Julie Ann Nitsch said in 2010 a man entered her apartment, pinned her down in bed and assaulted her. When she called 911, she said “police asked her how much she had to drink that night, what she had been wearing and why she lived in a bad neighborhood,” the lawsuit says. She said she never heard from police again and does not know whether her rape kit was ever tested.
“This could easily happen to me again,” she said. “And there will be no justice.”
The American-Statesman typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Conner and Nitsch gave their permission.
A third woman in the suit filed under a pseudonym because she fears retaliation from her attacker. She said she was raped in 2008 while she was a UT student. She said she was in downtown Austin when a man grabbed her, threw her into the back seat of his vehicle, took her to a hotel room and raped her, the lawsuit says.
Tyrone Robinson was charged with aggravated kidnapping after DNA tied him to the crime, but in late 2013, after years of delays, prosecutors dropped the charges pending further investigation, the Statesman reported.
While the case languished in Travis County, Robinson was charged with two sexual assaults in Harris County.
The three plaintiffs have requested an unspecified amount in damages as well as an injunction that would revamp the handling of sexual assault cases in Travis County, including requirements that officials teach trauma-informed approaches to investigations and prosecute cases even without DNA evidence. Attorneys have asked other victims to join the suit.
“If we fight the system we can see real change, and we don’t have to have our daughters and our nieces and the young women that are coming up right now live with the fear and the trauma that we live with every day,” Nitsch said.