SALT LAKE CITY — The debate over what to do with a backlog of untested rape kits in Utah took an unexpected detour Wednesday, with back-and-forth accusations of insensitivity and a state senator's admission that he is a sexual assault victim.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, initially drew fire from state Democrats over his comments before an interim committee, in which he questioned whether untested kits are being processed to simply improve the perception that something is being done.
"I don't want to spend limited, valuable resources for an issue that is merely perception," Thatcher told the body. "But I will tell you right now if there is a single kit with evidentiary value that is not being processed, that is absolutely, completely unacceptable and there is no excuse for that not being funded.
"If that is the case, we will fix it. We just — we need to know, is this a legitimate backlog of evidence or is it simply we're trying to put a perception of doing more because this is such an emotional issue."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon quickly jumped on Thatcher's comments.
"I worry that Daniel Thatcher just doesn't get it," Corroon said in a statement. "These victims have endured a terrible sexual assault, and then had to submit themselves to an incredibly invasive process and exam."
If we can't have an honest conversation about the best way to prosecute crime because we're afraid that some scumbag is going to take a cheap political shot, then victims get left behind.
–Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City
In a subsequent interview with KSL News, Corroon reiterated his position.
"I think it shows the insensitivity towards what is a really serious and emotional issue," he said. "That evidence that's taken should be processed. There should be no question about it."
Thatcher countered, however, slamming Democrats' attempt to "politicize" the issue and said he himself was sexually assaulted as a child. He said he was 11-years-old when he was attacked by a man he didn't know while on his way to school.
"It is a very traumatic memory — even 25 years later, I still think of it frequently," Thatcher said. "For him [Corroon] to say that I, as a survivor, do not understand the trauma of sexual assault is so offensive to me."
Thatcher contended that the state crime lab has testified that every kit with evidentiary value that can help close a case is being processed. He also noted a state committee is recommending best practices for rape kit testing, and he observed that the Legislature appropriated $750,000 to process many of the untested kits.
"To spend $1,000 to process a kit that won't help close a case — in my opinion, using those resources to speed up the turnaround time probably does a much better job of getting justice for these people," Thatcher said.
We are sorry for the trauma Daniel Thatcher suffered. ... But it doesn't change the fact that there are thousands of rape kits in Utah that need to be processed, and our state Legislature should not pick and choose which cases warrant analysis.
–Peter Corroon, Utah Democratic Party
Donna Kelly with the Utah Prosecution Council said Wednesday estimates of the number of untested kits statewide range from 3,000 to 5,000.
Running those kits, she said, is important in order to identify repeat offenders.
"It's really about connecting the dots around Utah, and around the country, as to putting these cases together and showing the true picture of the crimes that they are committing," Kelly said.
Thatcher contended it's fair to question how limited funds are best spent to help victims.
"If we can't have an honest conversation about the best way to prosecute crime because we're afraid that some scumbag is going to take a cheap political shot, then victims get left behind," Thatcher said.
Corroon issued an additional statement late Wednesday in response to Thatcher's sexual assault experience.
"We are sorry for the trauma Daniel Thatcher suffered, and we look forward to the day that this is no longer an issue in our communities," Corroon stated. "But it doesn't change the fact that there are thousands of rape kits in Utah that need to be processed, and our state Legislature should not pick and choose which cases warrant analysis."
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba