Iowa needs stronger rules for evidence of possible sexual assault

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With the help of $3 million in federal grants, the Iowa Sexual Assault Kit Initiative has completed the state’s first comprehensive inventory of sexual assault kits that have been stored without being submitted to a crime laboratory for analysis.

In the coming months Iowa’s Crime Victim Assistance Division will expend $1.25 million more in federal grant money to process the bulk of these kits. DNA profiles resulting from those tests will be cross-referenced with a national criminal justice database. If a match is found, prosecutors and law enforcement will be notified for further investigation and possible criminal charges. But there’s one more critical step to clearing Iowa’s rape evidence kit backlog: Making sure it doesn’t happen again.

The kits contain forensic evidence of possible sex crimes — swabs of different body areas and other items that may contain DNA. Each of the 4,265 untested kits identified in the inventory, held by 168 law enforcement agencies throughout the state, represents a potential crime victim.

A handful of police departments in some of Iowa’s most populous jurisdictions accounted for the bulk of the untested kits, some of which date as far back as the early 1990s. Agencies in Johnson and Linn counties have 758 untested rape evidence kits, or roughly a fifth of the statewide total. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller estimates about half of the previously untested kits will produce usable DNA, and that one third or more of those kits will generate matches with known offenders.

DNA, alone, may not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a rape occurred, but it is critical evidence collected in an often hourslong, invasive process that can cause significant distress for the reported victim of assault. It is shameful that such valuable evidence was left unexamined while cases went uninvestigated and unsolved.

State law requires law enforcement agencies to store untested sexual assault kits for at least 10 years or, in the case of an underage victim, 10 years past the reported victim’s 18th birthday — longer, if testing reveals potentially useful DNA evidence. But as of now, it’s up to individual agencies, investigators or county prosecutors to decide which kits should be submitted for analysis and which should be allowed to languish on a shelf.

Clearly, stronger guidelines are needed to ensure reports of sexual assault are thoroughly investigated and justice is done.

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