Sarah Tofte '99

Now and then rare individuals come along who challenge the status quo and relentlessly pursue truth and justice. They are so deeply committed to their cause that they are—at the same time—convincing. Luther's Young Alumni Award winner for 2006, Sarah Tofte, is one of these individuals.

As a senior at Luther College she was chosen by her classmates to receive the Jenson Medal, presented each year to the graduate who best demonstrates service to the common good. As a law student at the University of Minnesota, she graduated at the top of her class and received the Most Promising Public Servant Award from her classmates. She worked in the University’s Institute for Race and Poverty, and volunteered as a legal consultant for the Minnesota AIDS Project documenting the treatment of persons with HIV/AIDS in Minnesota’s prisons. She was also a fellow with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

In 2002, she joined the Innocence Project in New York City where she drafted and advocated for legislation to prevent wrongful convictions and coordinated a national coalition of criminal justice reform advocates. But Sarah will tell you her work helping exonerated individuals re-enter society after years behind bars for crimes they did not commit, including securing compensation for their wrongful convictions, was the most satisfying.

Sarah joined Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005 and co-authored, with Jamie Fellner, the seminal report, So Long as They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States. The 65-page report documents the history of lethal injections in America, botched executions, and the flaws and failures of lethal injection. It is a compelling read and the definitive study on this topic and shines a spotlight squarely on the death penalty as public policy.

While there are obviously strong opinions on all sides of the issue of capital punishment, Sarah is not a polarizing figure. She is strong, yet soft-spoken, and she is less likely to argue than to talk with you.  She looks to find common ground to bring people together.

But Sarah’s work has America taking notice. Her report released in March 2009, Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County, found that there were at least 12,669 untested rape kits sitting in storage—in Los Angeles alone. Later, a five-month CBS News investigation found at least 20,000 more untested kits in four other major American cities, and many other cities have not even begun to count their untested kits. Sarah’s report blew the lid off a major problem in America, and her continuing crusade holds elected officials and law enforcement accountable for placing crimes of rape and sexual assault higher on the priority list.

Sarah’s Op-Ed pieces have found their way onto the pages of major American newspapers including the L.A. Times and the Washington Post. The movement has taken to numerous internet news sites and blogs, and is gaining traction.

Glamour magazine featured Sarah in the 2010 article, “She Fought for 12,600 Rape Victims and Won." She served as a consultant for the “Law & Order: SVU” episode "Behave," guest starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a rape victim underscoring the problem of untested kits, and appeared alongside “Law & Order” star, Mariska Hargitay, on “The Today Show” to discuss the issue prior to the episode’s airing.

Sarah left HRW in 2010 to join Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation as director of advocacy and strategic partnerships where she is leading the work on the rape kit backlog.

Sarah shining her bright light on the problem L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck calls “a national disgrace,” has led to positive changes. New York has tested every kit in its backlog and now tests new ones within 30 to 60 days. Illinois enacted a law last month requiring every past and future kit to be tested. The Los Angeles police require the same. And on October 27, 2010, Sarah attended a White House event commemorating Domestic Violence Awareness Month where Vice President Joe Biden announced increased federal funding to end the rape kit backlog in America.

Sarah Tofte '99 (photograph by Joao Canziani)