Capital Clicks

Iowa tests thousands of backlogged sexual assault evidence kits

By: - November 30, 2021 4:14 pm

A sexual assault evidence kit. (Illustration via National Institute of Justice)

Iowa has cleared a backlog of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits, the Attorney General’s Office reported Tuesday, resulting in nearly 300 DNA matches and four criminal cases.

The Iowa Sexual Assault Kit Initiative began in 2015 with the goal of testing a backlog of sexual assault evidence kits in the state. A survey conducted that year found over 4,000 kits collected before April 2015 had never been submitted for testing. Through the program, investigators tested 1,606 kits for DNA evidence. 

The federal government provided $3 million to the project, which Attorney General Tom Miller said mainly went toward third-party testing of the kits. Miller said the funds were not sufficient to test the entire backlog, so staff prioritized those cases that would be “productive” — those with known victims who might be interested in pursuing criminal charges against their assailant.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller speaks during an online news conference Nov. 30, 2021, about the state’s program to eliminate a backlog of rape kits. (Screen shot from Zoom call)

Only about half of the tested samples had sufficient DNA to analyze. Of those, analysts found more than 290 DNA matches between the kits and FBI data, including over two dozen men who had already been convicted of sex crimes.

The 1,606 kits resulted in four new criminal cases and two convictions. Miller said many victims chose not to pursue charges, even when their evidence kits revealed a DNA match.

“The main reason that the prosecution didn’t take place is that the victims did not want to go forward, and that was largely due to the timing,” Miller said. “They were very, very old cases.”

In addition to clearing the backlog, the attorney general’s office touted improvements to the current system to process evidence kits. DNA evidence now takes 8 weeks to process, on average. In 2015, it could take over a year for results to come back.

Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, director of the Crime Victim Assistance Division, said it was challenging to prosecute sexual assault when evidence was so severely delayed.

“As a prosecutor, that was one of the things that always broke my heart when I had a sexual assault case was to tell a victim, ‘Yes, you’ve done everything right. You reported, you got your kit done, (but) we’re going to have to wait to file any charges because we’re not going to get any evidence back for a year,’” Murphy said.

Iowa has also improved the tracking process for evidence kits. In October 2020, the state launched “Track-Kit,” which allows victims to monitor their evidence kits through the testing process. Earlier this year, Iowa legislators passed a law that requires medical facilities, police agencies, county attorneys and other groups to use the Track-Kit service. The law also requires state officials to notify victims before disposing of evidence.

Murphy encouraged victims of sexual assault who had questions about their evidence kits to reach out to the information line for the Iowa Sexual Assault Kit Initiative at 800-770-1650. The same number also direct callers to the Iowa Victim Services Center, which can connect sexual assault survivors with additional resources. 

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.