FACT CHECK: Stein campaign ad leads opponent O’Neill to file complaint with elections board

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The campaign for Jim O’Neill has filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections about a campaign ad produced by Attorney General Josh Stein’s campaign.

O’Neill, a Republican and the current district attorney in Forsyth County, is facing Stein, a Democrat, in the race for attorney general.

READ THE CBS 17 POLITICAL PLEDGE

CBS 17 took a closer look at one of the key claims in the ad as part of our political pledge to test the factual accuracy of public communications offered by candidates, political action committees or partisan groups.

THE CLAIM: The speaker in the ad says O’Neill, who has held his position since 2009, “left 1,500 rape kits sitting on a shelf.”

THE FACTS: The 30-second ad produced by the Stein campaign features a sexual assault survivor identified only as Juliette and brings up the thousands of sexual assault evidence kits across North Carolina that were collected but had not been tested, a backlog that the state’s SURVIVOR Act of 2019 was passed and then signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper to address.

Before its passage, state officials say more than 15,000 evidence kits statewide went untested. The ad does not identify the source for the 1,500 kits it attempts to tie to O’Neill. When asked for attribution, Stein campaign spokesman Eric Stern provided CBS17.com with a breakdown of audit figures from the 2017 Untested Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit survey.

It lists the law enforcement agencies and the number of untested kits in their inventories — including the Winston-Salem Police Department (1,339), the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office (96), the Kernersville Police Department (65), Wake Forest University (7) and the UNC School of the Arts (2), for a total of 1,509.

In response to that CBS17.com investigation, O’Neill campaign spokeswoman Greer Cawood produced a copy of the complaint filed Tuesday with the state Board of Elections.

The complaint called the assertion of the 1,500 evidence kits “false and defamatory” and argues a district attorney “is never in the chain of custody” when those kits are submitted to the crime lab for testing. The complaint continues that law enforcement agencies “do not ask and are not required to ask the District Attorney for authorization or permission” to submit those untested kits to a lab.

Stern called the complaint a “public relations stunt.”

“Jim O’Neill has said he wants to be Attorney General to eliminate the backlog, which Josh Stein is already doing,” Stern said. “O’Neill has had a decade to make progress in his own county and did nothing.”

But another district attorney in the state told CBS17.com on condition of anonymity that typically it’s the job of a law enforcement agency to have those kits tested, but added that it doesn’t leave the DA in that jurisdiction entirely blameless. That district attorney spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid becoming part of the campaign.

And Monika Johnston-Hostler, the executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said law enforcement generally collects those kits from hospitals and sends them to the State Crime Lab for testing. Those agencies have their own protocols — “some of them wait until they investigate it, some of them rush it,” she said — and in some counties that decision is made between law enforcement and the prosecutor.

“But the end result should be, a kit is collected, it’s sent, passed off to some law enforcement — (which specific agency) is up to the community — and then it should land itself to the SBI lab for collection,” Johnston-Hostler said.

CBS17.com also found a statement posted on the state Department of Justice’s website from April 2019 in which Stein congratulated the Winston-Salem Police Department and its chief of police for its progress in submitting 346 of those older kits to the State Crime Lab.

When asked how the Stein campaign reconciles that statement with its criticism of O’Neill, Stern said the current AG’s “leadership on testing the backlog is what has resulted in this progress.”

Exactly two years ago Thursday, the state introduced a tracking system that allows survivors and law enforcement officers to follow the progress of a sexual assault kit once collected, in an effort to prevent backlogs and increase transparency and accountability.

State Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Brewer told CBS17.com Wednesday evening that 8,025 kits are in the process of being tested, and that number is part of the 16,114 kits inventoried in 2019. During the tracking system’s first year, which ended Oct. 1, 2019, there were 10,759 kits entered into the system — 8,299 of which were part of that sizable backlog.

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