CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has launched a statewide audit of untested rape kits Tuesday, surveying more than 400 of Iowa’s law enforcement agencies to gauge how many of these kits are in Iowa.
This is the first step in a process that could lead to the investigation and prosecution in old rape cases, following the leads of dozens of states that performed audits following increased attention to the issue.
Rape kits, which contain the hair, smears and DNA evidence from rapes, can help pinpoint suspects through a DNA analysis at state crime labs, but not all get tested, creating backlogs in Iowa and throughout the country.
Area agencies' recent rape kit data
|Department||Date range||Total rape kits||Number left untested||Percent sent in for testing|
|U of I||2000-2014||46||7||85%|
Total untested rape kits: 352
After a movement led by victim’s rights advocates in recent years, Iowa and several other states received millions of dollars last year in federal funding to count how many untested rape kits are in the evidence rooms of law enforcement agencies.
Iowa’s $2 million portion of the $79 million made available will be used to survey law enforcement agencies throughout Iowa, asking each department to count untested kits and giving reasons the kits were not sent for testing, a process the office estimates will take six months.
After the surveys, the office will use the funding to test some kits, with consideration given to victim’s wishes, said Janelle Melohn, director of the Crime Victim Assistance Division within the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
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“It allows us to drill down and really understand the process surrounding submission of rape kits for testing here in Iowa and whether or not they could be improved,” Melohn said. “It allows us to make improvements for how future (sexual assault) kits are handled.”
Iowa law remains silent on how police should handle kits, as do many other state codes, leaving when and if kits should be tested to the discretion of local investigators, prosecutors and police departments. This results in non-uniform standards state and nationwide.
Advocates for testing backlogged rape kits argue doing so will cut down on cases of serial rape. DNA profiles taken from sexual assault kits are loaded into CODIS, the FBI’s national database, to search the DNA profile taken from a rape kit against the profiles of convicted offenders throughout the country.
While the Attorney General’s Office can’t require law enforcement agencies participate in the audit, the Iowa Police Chiefs Association and the Iowa Department of Public Safety will encourage responses, Melohn said.
A Gazette analysis in November showed that more than 350 rape kits, some dating back to the early 1990s, remain untested in the evidence rooms of Linn and Johnson counties’ eight law enforcement departments.
While there are no exact numbers available, endthebacklog.org, a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national non-profit for victims of sexual assaults, estimates there are more than 120,000 untested rape kits at law enforcement agencies in the United States. Testing these kits could generate leads in old rape investigations, as was shown in dozens of U.S. cities and states that have audited untested rape kits in their departments. In Houston, as of November, 6,663 untested kits yielded 850 hits in the FBI’s database, resulting in the prosecution of 29 offenders.