The Iowa Attorney General’s Office is pursuing legislation in the General Assembly which would assist their efforts in surveying law enforcement agencies, with the purpose of creating an inventory of the untested rape kits sitting in storage throughout the state. Their motive is an appropriate one, in light of their role in the justice system — they are interested in testing the rape kits and prosecuting the alleged perpetrators.
As the State Public Defender, I also support the bill for a reason that has gone largely unrecognized thus far in the debate and discussion of the proposal — the possibility that the untested rape kits could exonerate an innocent person.
How could someone be convicted, if the rape kit in their case was never tested? Take for example, the story of Michael Phillips in Dallas, Texas.
Phillips, a black man, was convicted and served twelve years for a sexual assault on a sixteen-year-old white woman in 1990 — a crime he did not commit. The victim had picked Phillips out of a lineup, erroneously identifying him as her attacker. Rather than go to trial and gamble with a hefty sentence, he hedged his bets and pleaded guilty to a lesser crime. The rape kit went untested — that is, until the Dallas District Attorney’s Office took another look at untested rape kits. When the kit was finally tested, the evidence pointed to another man. In 2014, Phillips was awarded $80,000 for each year he was wrongly incarcerated.
Another example can be found in the story of Luis Vargas in California. Vargas was convicted of three sexual assaults, and sentenced to fifty-five years in prison. Like Phillips, Vargas had been erroneously identified by the victims, who recognized a teardrop tattoo on his face. However, when attacks fitting the “Teardrop Rapist’s” modus operandi continued while Vargas was incarcerated, lawyers from the California Innocence Project got involved- including Audrey McGinn, the director of our new Wrongful Conviction Division here in Iowa. They worked with prosecutors to get them to agree to DNA test the rape kits. The results showed that the victim’s attacker was not Vargas, but instead matched the profile of the real Teardrop Rapist, who was obviously still at large. Presented with the results and the cooperation of both the prosecution and CIP lawyers, Judge William Ryan of the Los Angeles County Superior Court took less than a minute to overturn Vargas’s convictions for which he was wrongly incarcerated for sixteen years.
Here in Iowa, the legislature should pass House File 2420. The bill requires the Iowa Department of Justice to survey local law enforcement agencies regarding the details of untested rape kits, and requires the agencies to respond in a timely manner. My office has worked with the Attorney General’s Office to craft an amendment which will require disclosure of whether a conviction was obtained for any crime associated with an untested rape kit, and will require disclosure of such information to the Wrongful Conviction Division of the Office of the State Public Defender. As amended, House File 2420 can represent another significant step toward justice in Iowa.
• Adam Gregg is the Iowa State Public Defender. He was the Republican nominee for Attorney General in 2014. He previously served as an adviser to Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org