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Federal judge to decide if local law enforcement agencies mishandled sex assault cases

File image of federal courthouse in Austin. (CBS Austin)

A federal judge will decide if local law enforcement agencies mishandled sex assault cases in Travis County.

Eight women, all sexual assault survivors, said in a lawsuit that Austin and Travis County law enforcement mishandled their claims of rape and sexual assault.

"Today was the first step in what we hope is the long process in victims being heard and the city and the county being held accountable to make things right," said Jennifer Ecklund, an attorney representing the eight women named in the lawsuit.

Monday's court hearing was the first that could decide whether their lawsuit can move forward, but this step is already a slight victory in this case.

"They're hopeful, and they are glad their voices are being hard, and they are ready to move forward," Ecklund said.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are: the City of Austin, Travis County DA Margaret Moore, former Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, former APD Chief Art Acevedo, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez and the county itself.

The lawsuit claims the Austin Police Department and Travis County detectives discriminated against women in the investigations of their reported sex assaults.

"The plaintiffs want to change the culture of both the APD and the DA's office to ensure that their voices are heard and that they have a seat at the table when decisions are being made that affect them," Ecklund said.

Out on 1,000 yearly reported sexual assault cases, Ecklund says, on average, less than 10 make it to trial, and in 2017, the lawsuit claims the only case to make it to trial involved a male victim.

"When you combine that with the fact the DNA lab was dealing primarily with rape kits that were sitting there backlogged in the thousands for years it is discrimination against women," Ecklund said.

Ecklund said fighting this lawsuit won't be easy, but she is hopeful.

"Maybe it is hard case to win but the idea is to get people focused on change and if bringing the case is enough to do that than we have effected what we hoped to achieve," Ecklund said.

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