Thousands of Rape Kits in Texas Went Untested For Years. Lavinia Masters Is Ending That.
The Lavinia Masters Act, which goes into effect in September, is the culmination of more than ten years of Masters’ advocacy in Texas, where a backlog of about 20,000 untested rape kits was identified in 2011.
Lavinia Masters was 13 years old when a stranger raped her at knifepoint in her Dallas bedroom. For more than two decades, her rape kit—the evidence collected in a hospital after the assault on July 31, 1985—sat untested. By the time her case was reopened in 2005, it was too late to press charges. Masters learned hers was one of hundreds of thousands of kits across the country that sat on shelves for years, sometimes—as in Masters’ case—as assailants went on to rape others. For more than 10 years, she’s advocated for reform in Texas, where a backlog of about 20,000 untested rape kits was identified in 2011. This year, Masters worked with Democratic state Representative Victoria Neave to pass a major law aimed at tracking rape kits, clearing the backlog, and extending the statute of limitations. Masters spoke with the Observer about the decades of trauma and work that led to the Lavinia Masters Act and what comes next.
House Bill 8, the Lavinia Masters Act, goes into effect in September. How are you feeling?
I am excited about it—it’s been a long time coming. It’s a fight that I’ve been fighting since 2005, to see a change in our rape kit backlog. It’s almost surreal.
I used to have depression all the time this time of year. This morning, I woke up in a great mood, and then I realized that this was actually the day I was assaulted. It’s no longer a bad date for me, no longer a day of mourning. I had a purpose, and I’m fulfilling that purpose.
[At the Texas Capitol] I spoke about the number eight. I’m a woman of faith, and in the Bible, eight represents new beginnings. That’s what this is for me. I used the comparison of Lavinia in Shakespeare’s play [Titus Andronicus], how she was raped and they cut off her hands and her tongue so she couldn’t tell who raped her. But she put a stick between her arms and wrote in the ground. I felt like I was silenced like they silenced Lavinia, but she still found a way to tell who assaulted her, and I felt like I did as well. I found a way to finally get it out. So I’m trying to take everything from the negative and turn it to positive.
Is this the first year you’ve been able to do that?
When my case got resolved in 2005 or 2006, it was like my whole life turned around. My rapist had told me he knew my family, knew where I lived, and if he saw the police, he was going to come back and kill me. That fear of the unknown stuck with me for a long time. You put them further in the darkness when you don’t give them any answers to what’s happening with their cases.
I wrote [my rapist] a letter after I found out who he was. He never responded; I think I wrote him three letters. In the first, I was real surly, like, “You thought you got away, didn’t you?” By the third, I was like, “I’m praying for you. May God have mercy on your soul.” I gave him so much power for so long that he wasn’t supposed to possess from me. I wanted to let him know, I got it back.
Before your case was solved, what was it like to realize your kit hadn’t been tested for decades?
Being a victim is another world that I really can’t even explain. It was very dark for me, very lonely, confusing. The police came to my house that night, took fingerprints, took me to the hospital. I was thinking that, you know, they’re looking high, searching low, to try to find out who the perpetrator is.
Fast-forward to when I called to get my case reopened. I thought it was solved. I just thought they had never found me, because I grew up, got married, my last name changed. I had no idea they had closed my case down three days after the assault. They told me that because of the time that lapsed on my case, that if they found my perpetrator, I wouldn’t be able to prosecute him, because the statute of limitations expired.
Hearing my kit was on the shelf was gut-wrenching. But I allowed that anger to fuel me to make a change. I said, I can’t do anything to him, but there will not be other victims like this. Two years ago, I met Victoria Neave through Wendy Davis. I’ve been working with [Neave] on her task force, telling her how victims feel, how to treat them, how to approach them.
I read my police report two weeks ago as I was cleaning some things out. The part that makes me most angry is that they said there was not enough evidence. I was like, wow. I was the evidence. The report says he had semen in me, on my underwear, on my gown—this clown left all kinds of evidence. You really want to scream. It’s basically a betrayal. And if you talk to victims who are traumatized by sexual violence, you’ll realize that they don’t handle betrayal and rejection too well. That’s how I was. I was totally betrayed and rejected by my justice system.
Twenty years passed before you spoke out about your assault. How did you decide to come forward?
I always said I had a higher calling. My husband said that sometimes you have to look at the pain God brought you through and use that to help others. I was like, “Help other people who’ve been raped? How?” Nobody talks about that. How do you help people with things they don’t want to talk about? My family told me to leave it alone, don’t talk about it, don’t tell anybody. We’re trained to stay silent. My husband was like, “You break that, you change that, you stop that.”
My mom put on a prayer breakfast and invited me to speak. This was at the time when I wanted to help others but I didn’t know how. Five women spoke. I was first. I went through what happened to me and said, I’m still thankful because I’m still standing, and I want to help others, I’m healed now, on and on. And women are just crying. I’m thinking they’re sad because I broke their hearts; I felt bad. Then I sat down and my mom got up. And my mom began to share her story that I had never heard—she had been raped twice, at 12 and 15. Then each woman that got up after me, they were supposed to say something else, but they all talked about their rapes. I had never spoke publicly about this, and it hit me—I have to just tell it, because you don’t know how many victims are like you. So that was my, as Oprah says, aha moment.
What’s next for your advocacy?
We have to keep up the momentum. We have to keep talking about this. Victoria was like, “It’s been great working with you!” I said, “Working with me? Baby, we’re just beginning!” We can’t stop, because the backlog builds back up. When I first started working on this, there were about 20,000 kits on the shelf in Texas. We got the kits down, but by the time we did a recount 10 years later, we had like 18,000 kits.
This is what happens if you don’t get something that’s persistent and consistent in place to make sure people are held accountable for what happened. If we shine a light on it, like the Lavinia Masters Act, and then get quiet about it, it all builds back up all over again. And there’s going to be the same taboo rape has that nobody talks about. Not as long as I have my big mouth. And I want other people to have big mouths, too. Come on, join me.