Lawsuit filed by former, current UT students claims Austin, Travis County fail sexual assault victims

Eilish O'Sullivan

On Monday, a federal class action lawsuit was filed by three women who said the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and the Austin Police Department violated their rights and discriminated on the basis of gender when handling their sexual assault cases.

“(The women are) coming forward for a second, third, sometimes fourth time in this lawsuit,” said Jennifer Ecklund, attorney for the plaintiffs. “They came forward once to the police, they worked with the DA’s office to try and see their cases through, some of them talked with the media to try and raise attention to what’s going on, and this is sort of their last avenue for redress, it’s their last chance to see some justice done.”  

Two of the plaintiffs were UT students at the time of their sexual assaults in 2008 and 2015, according to the lawsuit. In 2015, one of the women withdrew from the University after her attack, which occurred the same year, and is now a current student after re-enrolling.

The lawsuit names 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 ­­— as its defendants.

“In terms of how the DA’s office functions is that women’s testimony is not viewed as enough to substantiate heinous assaults,” Ecklund said. “I think the most consistent policies and practices … result in blaming of the victim as opposed to holding the perpetrators accountable.”

The lawsuit said that government officials failed to have DNA evidence tested for years at a time and contaminated DNA evidence, among other mishandlings.

Ecklund said changes in regard to how DNA is handled is just one thing she and her plaintiffs hope to see come out of the lawsuit.

One of the women, a former UT student in 2008, had an ongoing case against her perpetrator in Travis County.

While the case went on for eight years, the lawsuit said the person committed at least two additional sexual assaults in Houston and was charged in Harris County.

“(The women would) like to see changes in terms of the accountability of the district attorney’s office to actually prosecute sexual assault cases and ensure that rapists don’t continue to walk free,” Ecklund said.

While women make up 91 percent of sexual assault victims, the only case taken to trial in 2017 in Travis County involved a male victim, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also said that APD’s sexual assault unit had a wall with photos of victims whose claims had been “debunked” by officers as “trophies of their investigations which determined allegations by purported victims were unsubstantiated,” at one point in time.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

“The integrity of the criminal justice system is of utmost importance to the City and our law enforcement partner,” said David Green, spokesperson for the City of Austin, in an email. “We are aware of the issues raised in this lawsuit and will be reviewing the details as we determine our next steps.”

Ecklund said this is the last chance for her clients to see some justice.

“The primary concern all of (the women) have, and the primary concern that most women raise when they report rapes and sexual assaults is that they don’t want other women to have to go through it,” Ecklund said. “In their mind, this is the only way they have left to try and ensure that other women don’t have to endure the same kinds of trauma that they did.”