An evidence bag from a sexual assault case in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center. (Photo: Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

A Houston woman was raped in her apartment by a man claiming to be a mechanic one night in 2011. She escaped, reported the attack and submitted to a rape kit examination.

That kit revealed the DNA of her attacker—but only five years later, in 2016. The evidence she had given was left untested among thousands of other rape kits in Houston.

Now, in a potentially massive class-action lawsuit filed in federal court, DeJenay Beckwith alleges that she should never have been raped at all, if the police had done their job.

Her attacker was only free on the streets to attack her because authorities had failed to test forensic evidence they always had in their possession. It is, she alleges, an “appalling violation of the law” that resulted in the 2011 attack.

At the time of the rape, David Lee Cooper’s DNA had been in CODIS for two decades, since 1991. And he had been both convicted and found not guilty of a number of other crimes in the time before she was attacked in her home, Beckwith says in the civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court Monday.

“DeJenay Beckwith relied upon Houston’s intentional and false representations regarding the genetic evidence she submitted. Had Houston entered any of David Lee Cooper victims’ genetic evidence, David Lee Cooper would have been stopped before he had the chance to sexually assault and rape DeJenay Beckwith,” the attorneys write in the suit.

If successful, the litigation could have far-reaching ramifications not just in Houston, but also nationally. The “rape kit backlog” has been a large priority for most law enforcement agencies, from local to state to federal. An estimated tens of thousands of kits remain untested across the country, even as agencies attempt to reduce the pile.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are five former mayors and six former police chiefs, in addition to their current counterparts: Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo, in addition to the current CEO of the Houston Forensic Science Center, Peter Stout.

The Houston Police Department said in a short statement that it would not be commenting on the ongoing Beckwith lawsuit. Stout said in a statement that he could not comment directly on pending litigation - but emphasized that the HFSC only assumed the city's forensic operations in 2014, and have since eliminated the backlog of sexual assault evidence.

Beckwith’s rape kit was one of 6,600 kits that sat on a shelf for years, as part of the citywide “backlog.” That means Beckwith could be joined by thousands of other women and children in the lawsuit, according to the attorneys.

Beckwith was circled by a man in a car who asked if she needed a ride on the night of April 2, 2011. She said she did not need a ride, but mentioned she hoped to fix her car. The man, who was later identified as Cooper, said he was a mechanic, according to the legal documents.

Beckwith talked with him about cars, and his inspection of her car—and her noticing that his hands appeared dirty and oily—convinced her he was legitimately a mechanic. After they talked business about her vehicle needing a new motor, he asked for a drink of water. She allowed him inside her apartment—where he threw her to the floor, raped her and bit her, according to court papers.

She fled the apartment and ran into a male friend who chased off Cooper. Beckwith gave a rape kit sample at a local hospital, and was administered anti-STD drugs, the lawsuit adds.

She was contacted initially by a Houston Police Department detective who first implied she was on a particular street as a prostitute, and then discouraged her from filing a report, according to the claims.

Years later, they contacted her to say they had a suspect in her attack, based on the DNA evidence.

The lawsuit alleges Beckwith’s civil rights were violated by not testing the rape kit. It also contends that thousands of other victims were disproportionately discriminated against, since almost all were female.

Texas became the first state to pass a law establishing a wide array of rape kit reforms this summer. But other states have had a backlog problem—and there have been the occasional cases that fell through the cracks, and allowed criminals to remain on the streets even as evidence could have potentially locked them away. For instance, a child rapist named Kalonji Lee was identified by a CODIS cold case hit in California in 2004, but was only found by Oakland police months afterward, after he had raped a second young girl, aged 10.

The majority of rape kits do not produce a CODIS “hit” on known offenders, according to multiple accountings of state results. One in four do produce some kind of investigative lead, according to Forensic Magazine’s investigation earlier this year. However, most tracking systems do not keep account of whether hits result in further prosecution or convictions. 

The Beckwith attack should never have happened if the DNA work had been done, the litigation argues.

“David Lee Cooper is a serial rapist who could have been stopped in 1991, 1994, 2002, 2005 and in 2009 before he sexually assaulted and raped DeJenay Beckwith,” they say.

Cooper, the serial rapist, pleaded guilty last December to raping Beckwith, as well the 2002 sexual assault of a child, and the 2009 rape of another woman. The DNA evidence had been the driver in the convictions.