Public Safety

Many rape kits remain unanalyzed in Corridor, elsewhere in nation

Law on testing unclear; advocates push for more testing to catch serial sexual offenders

A sexual assault evidence collection kit at the emergency room of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, September, 2015. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
A sexual assault evidence collection kit at the emergency room of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, September, 2015. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — 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 as state officials try to gauge the extent of the backlog in Iowa and bring justice to the victims of those rapes.

The forensic kits, which are free to rape survivors, contain hair, smears and other remnants from attacks that can help pinpoint suspects through a DNA analysis.

This isn’t an issue specific only to the Corridor — an estimated 70,000 untested rape kits from years past have been counted in more than 1,000 police departments nationwide. Victims’ rights advocates have demanded clearing the backlogs and passing laws to prevent similar situations from recurring.

And while there’s no clear number on how many untested rape kits are in Iowa, state officials plan to complete an audit this year.

Iowa law remains silent on how police should handle kits, as do many other state codes. State law requires departments store kits for 10 years before discarding them, but leaves when and if kits should be tested to the discretion of local investigators and prosecutors. This has created non-uniform standards statewide.

Area agencies' recent rape kit data

DepartmentDate rangeTotal rape kitsNumber left untestedPercent sent in for testing
Iowa City 2009-2014 238 150 37%
Cedar Rapids 2009-present 119 58 51%
Marion 2005-present 66 46 30%
Johnson County 1992-2014 53 35 34%
Linn County 2005-present 54 30 44%
Coralville 1998-present 121 20 83%
U of I 2000-2014 46 7 85%
North Liberty 1999-present 28 6 79%

Total untested rape kits: 352

Advocates for testing backlogged rape kits in Iowa and other states argue doing so will cut down on cases of serial rape. DNA profiles taken from sexual assault kits are loaded into CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System, the FBI’s national database — to search the unknown DNA profile of an offender against the database of convicted offenders throughout the country.

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“When we have a crime where there’s a high recidivism rate, with the same perpetrator committing the crime over and over again, you have the ability to solve more than one case, more than one rape, which is why people advocate for having” every single kit tested, said Bruce Reeve, a lab administrator with the Division of Criminal Investigation, where all rape kits are sent for DNA analysis in Iowa. The CODIS database contains DNA profiles of 12 million criminal offenders, aiding 282,000 investigations nationwide.

Cities that have addressed rape kit backlogs in their police departments have seen success. In Houston, 6,663 untested rape kits yielded 850 hits in the FBI’s database, resulting in prosecution of 29 offenders.

Iowa and several states received multimillion-dollar federal grants last month to pay for audits of untested rape kits. The funds also will help cover the testing of those kits.

Iowa’s $2 million grant is just one piece of $79 million in federal money awarded to reduce the nationwide backlog.

The state Attorney General’s Office will conduct the audit by asking departments to count the untested kits and provide a reason why each one wasn’t tested. The office then will determine which kits to test and, ultimately, file charges against the sex offenders.

“The more the conversation (about untested rape kits) grew, the more it became clear there were pieces to this conversation we were neglecting to see or hear,” said Janelle Melohn, director of the Crime Victim Assistance Division within the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. “It was very clear that yes, there are kits on shelves in Iowa law enforcement agencies, and we need to understand why that is.”

A lot to change

While departments in Linn and Johnson counties possess a total of 350 untested rape kits, that doesn’t mean they broke the law. Iowa Code offers no guidance to law enforcement agencies regarding which kits should be tested and when — it only requires agencies store kits for 10 years, the length of the statute of limitations for sex crimes.

Discretion on which kits to test lies solely with the investigating officer and county-level prosecutors.

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“There’s a lot of places this could break down, and the more I become educated, the more I realize we leave a lot to chance” in the code, Melohn said.

As no law dictates what to do with the kits, law enforcement agencies have been left to create their own standards, which results in kits being tested less than half the time for four of the area’s eight departments.

While the Attorney General’s Office doesn’t have a state mandate to back up its request — that attempt failed last year in the state Legislature — Melohn hopes local police departments will comply. All eight departments in Linn and Johnson counties told The Gazette they would participate in the study.

Iowa follows many states in performing statewide audits of untested kits. In Minnesota, for example, an inventory of untested kits showed more than 3,400 were collected from victims but never tested.

Eight states, including Illinois, Colorado and Connecticut, have passed measures addressing sexual assault evidence issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks state legislation trends throughout the country.

Police agencies offered explanations as to why a kit may not be sent to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the state’s only publicly funded crime lab. If a victim doesn’t want to have the kit tested, for example, departments will hold it for 10 years before discarding it, said Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner.

Also, if the rape suspect is known, police may decide not to send the kit in, said Lt. Scott Elam, spokesman for the Marion Police Department. He added that the state’s crime lab has its own backlog — which the DCI has admitted.

Other reasons range from a confession from the suspect; a criminal complaint was never filed; or the prosecutors declined to take a case.

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The Iowa City Police Department, which sent 37 percent of rape kits in for testing between 2009 and 2014, said it is entirely up to the victim’s discretion if a kit is tested.

“Essentially, the absolute main reason our kits are not sent in, it’s the discretion of our victims,” Sgt. Scott Gaarde said. “We do our best to respect the victims.”

The Cedar Rapids Police Department has sent in 51 percent of rape kits from 2009 to August of this year. City spokesman Greg Buelow said the department tests kits when the perpetrator is unknown or at the direction of the county attorney’s office.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, supports testing all rape kits, said Rebecca O’Connor, the group’s vice president for public policy, because research indicates rapists will act more than once — it’s a crime with a high recidivism rate. So one rape kit likely can be tied to more than one crime.

“The value of testing a kit goes beyond that individual case, in our opinion,” she said.

While RAINN wants every state to perform an audit of untested rape kits, more importantly, she said, there needs to be a way to prevent this from happening again.

Some states and cities have ways of tracking untested rape kits. For instance, some cities in Michigan have used UPS technology to track and monitor kits in new cases.

But of the eight law enforcement agencies in Linn and Johnson counties, only Iowa City has a method for tracking sexual assault kits separately from other evidence, which it started doing this year.

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The department categorizes which kits have been sent in for testing and which have not in its internal computer tracking system.

Elizabeth Barnhill, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has a suggestion: “We’d like to see mechanisms for tracking kits, whether that resides with individual law agencies or at the state level.”

 

What is a rape kit?

 

When people report a rape, they often are referred to a hospital to undergo a sexual assault forensic exam to collect DNA evidence that may help locate a suspect and strengthen a criminal case.

At Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) conduct these examinations, which typically take three hours, said Tracy Wilson, the SANE program coordinator at the hospital.

The sexual assault kit contains a collection of swabs to be used on different parts of the body where there was contact to collect DNA, blood, and other possible evidence left during the rape. The patient also may undergo a vaginal exam for signs of internal and external injury, Wilson said.

The patient will be given medications to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Photographs of injuries also may be taken.

However, the patient will decide how thorough the exam will be, Wilson said.

The kits will be forwarded to the police department in the jurisdiction where the assault occurred.

These exams are stipulated by the federal Violence Against Women Act, which requires states to provide the exams for free.

But just because patients undergo an exam doesn’t mean they have to report the crime.

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The statute of limitations for sex crimes in Iowa is 10 years, and police departments are required to hold on to those kits during that period.

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