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Crime & Justice

Travis County Settles Lawsuit Alleging Gender Bias In Sexual Assault Investigations

Paula Marks, forensics nurse manager at SAFE Alliance, provides a training in 2019 for two detectives to help them better understand how forensic evidence exams are administered.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Paula Marks, forensics nurse manager at SAFE Alliance, provides a training in 2019 for two detectives to help them better understand how forensic evidence exams are administered.

Travis County has settled a lawsuit that alleged the county violated the rights of survivors of sexual assault by failing to investigate and prosecute their allegations.

The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.

At the center of the case was the Austin Police Department's backlog of sexual assault evidence kits and a culture within the Travis County District Attorney's office that did not prosecute the vast majority of sexual assaults.

The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2018, alleging their civil rights were violated. A federal district judge ruled against them early last year and they appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last summer.

Last summer, plaintiffs filed a similar, class-action suit against the city and the county, alleging gender discrimination in the investigation process that "re-traumatized" them after surviving sexual assault.

Travis County commissioners approved a settlement of that case Tuesday.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, Travis County District Attorney José Garza and plaintiffs announced the settlement.

Garza, who ran on a platform of reforming Travis County's investigations into allegations of sexual assault, said he was grateful for the legal action, that it spurred change within the DA's office and that he hoped survivors would have more of a voice in how the county handles cases going forward.

"Most of all, I am grateful to survivors. Because of their courage and determination, we are undertaking significant reforms in the District Attorney's office," Garza said. "Because of their courage, our office is making sure that survivors are centered in our criminal justice system. As I said, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, but ... we will get through this work with survivors."

Garza defeated then-incumbent District Attorney Margaret Moore, who was named in the lawsuit, in a contentious primary last year.

Plaintiffs Marina Garrett and Hanna Senko, who founded the advocacy nonprofit We Are All Amy's Army to reform sexual assault investigations across Texas, said they hoped the City of Austin would follow Travis County's suit in settling, as well.

"This journey is not over, and it's now time for the City to follow suit," Garrett said.

Senko added that she hoped the settlement would offer "a new beginning" at the county level.

"It is ... important to understand that this is the beginning," Senko said, "a new beginning in which survivors and their cases are prioritized and handled with the care and the investment that they deserve."

Shortly after the announcement, Council Member Greg Casar tweeted that the city should move to "settle the suit, rather than fight it in court."

In a statement to KUT Tuesday evening, a city spokesperson said the city "is committed to improving best practices and outcomes" of sexual assault investigations.

"We want all survivors to feel safe, heard, and have confidence in every step of the process," the statement read.

Updated: June 22, 2021 at 5:58 PM CDT
This story was updated to include a statement from the city.
Updated: June 22, 2021 at 4:51 PM CDT
This story was updated to note that the amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
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