Shelby County judge rules 'rape kit lawsuit' can move forward as class-action suit

·3 min read

A lawsuit seeking damages related to 12,000 untested rape kits can now move forward as a class-action suit, Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Gina Higgins ruled Wednesday.

In subsequent blows to the City of Memphis' legal defense, Higgins ruled in favor of the plaintiffs for three other motions filed within the last few months.

The ruling caps off a nearly nine-year journey through the court system, including last-minute motions from both plaintiff and defense attorneys that pushed back Higgins' ruling since October 2022.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2014 after the Memphis Police Department disclosed the existence of some 12,000 untested rape kits with forensic evidence taken from victims of sexual assault between the 1980s and 2012.

The lack of testing meant sexual assault survivors lived with the knowledge their attackers were not identified or brought to justice, due to evidence that was either lost or untested over decades.

With a greenlight to certify the suit as class-action, plaintiffs are embarking on the next phase of seeking accountability from the city in a process that could promise another years-long legal endeavor. Thousands of survivors could qualify as parties to the class action suit.

"It's bittersweet," said Debby Dalhoff, a sexual assault survivor who has waited for today's ruling for years. Dalhoff was brutally assaulted in 1985, along with her roommate at the time.

Dalhoff had her suspicions about the identity of her attacker. But the handling of the evidence associated with her case delayed justice. Forensic evidence from her attack, she said, "went to the dumpster, literally."

Other assault survivors in Higgins' courtroom Wednesday spilled out into the hallways following the rulings, expressing a range of emotions from relief to dismay. On the one hand, said survivor Celia Reynolds, Wednesday's ruling was vindication.

On the other hand, Reynolds said, "It didn't have to take this long."

The most significant ruling pertained to the question of the class-action status. The additional three motions included a motion by the city to strike testimony from retired sex crimes detective Cody Wilkerson, a motion from the city for summary judgement, and a motion by the city for partial liability.

Most recently, plaintiff attorneys Gary Smith and Daniel Lofton filed a motion alleging the Memphis Police Department knowingly engaged in a pattern of false statements regarding the availability of DNA testing prior to 2002.

In the last months of 2022, the defense previously argued there was no reliable access to crime labs prior to 2002; plaintiffs countered the state had been collecting genetic profiles in criminal cases since at least 1993 and pointed to court-testimony from former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation DNA analyst Joe Minor.

Minor's testimony said the Memphis Police Department had access to a lab to test rape kids starting in 1993.

Prior to Wednesday's ruling, Jane Doe v. City of Memphis had but one unnamed plaintiff. Several sexual abuse survivors have signed on with the plaintiff attorneys in anticipation of the suit being eligible for class-action status.

Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal covering issues tied to access and equity. She can be reached at micaela.watts@commercialappeal.com.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Judge rules Memphis rape kit lawsuit can move forward