In the end, the evidence that broke open a 17-year-old sexual assault and kidnapping case had been in police possession all along.
Myron Brandon of Pacific Junction was convicted in October to kidnapping and transporting a minor with sexual intent and is scheduled for sentencing in March. The two victims, who were 14 and 15 at the time, told police in 2003 that a man in Omaha offered them a ride across town, but instead drove them into Iowa, threatened them with a knife, sexually assaulted them and burned them both with a cigarette.
Brandon wasn't identified and charged until last year, when an evidence kit collected after the attack was tested as part of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative by the Iowa Attorney General's Office. The project, which launched in 2015, has finally worked through the state's evidence kit backlog, Attorney General Tom Miller announced Tuesday.
Iowa received $3 million in federal grant money to tackle its backlog, with roughly 3,800 untested evidence kits collected prior to April 2015, including some dating back to the 1990s. The initiative worked with a private lab to test 1,606 of those kits, resulting in 852 valid DNA samples and 290 matches with other DNA profiles in federal databases. Twenty-six of those belonged to people previously convicted of sex crimes.
Others were referred to local prosecutors, and have so far resulted in four criminal cases, the most recent filed in Winnebago County in November, and two convictions, including Brandon's.
In announcing the conclusion of the project Tuesday, Miller touted not only the hard work of sorting out the backlog, but procedural changes and additional staffing that will allow the state to process sexual assault evidence faster, with more transparency to victims, and without allowing another backlog to develop despite an 87% increase in kits submitted to the state lab for testing.
"We’ve gone from a backlog that was a significant problem to a system where it takes eight weeks to test — and it can be tracked during that eight weeks," Miller said.
In 2020, law enforcement agencies across the state began rolling out the new Track-Kit program, a computerized system to help law enforcement, health care providers, labs and victims keep track of kits.
The Division of Criminal Investigation, which operates the state's crime lab, has also increased staffing there and overhauled its processes to work more efficiently, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said Tuesday.
"Since the inception of this project with the Attorney General's office, the lab has seen an 87% increase in sexual assault kit submissions," he said. "Now, almost every law enforcement agency in the state is sending their kits to the lab. More kits are being processed. More profiles are being entered into CODIS (a federal database of DNA evidence) and we’re seeing a great number of investigative hits and leads."
That 87% increase is not necessarily due to an increase in sexual assaults, Bayens said, but rather a change in how local agencies collect and process evidence.
"It’s more that there was a practice for a long period of time among many local law enforcement agencies to simply not submit those kits for DNA analysis for a variety of reasons," he said. "And really, part of this program was to get past whatever those stumbling blocks were and to make sure they were all coming in for testing."
The lab went from testing 433 kits in 2019 to three times as many, 1,298, in 2020. So far this year, the lab has tested 734 kits.
The often years-long delay in testing kits has cost investigators and survivors. The 1,606 kits tested represent less than half of the pre-2015 kits that were identified in a statewide audit. Of the rest, the most common reason they were not tested is that the victim could not be identified or declined to cooperate, Miller said.
For the same reason, many of the 290 cases in which investigators matched DNA evidence to known profiles will never result in charges.
"Of the 290, the main reason prosecution didn’t take place was that the victims did not want to go forward," Miller said. "And that was largely due to the timing. They were very, very, very old cases."
Officials are determined not to leave assault survivors in limbo for so long in the future. When the project began, it took an average of 10 to 14 months for the state crime lab to process a DNA sample, Miller said, although officials with the Department of Public Safety said the delay was closer to 6-9 months. Better processes and more staff have gotten that time down to eight weeks, and Bayens is hopeful to shrink it further still.
That represents a sea change in how local agencies can investigate and prosecute sexual assaults, said Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, the director of the Crime Victim Assistance Division in the Attorney General's office.
"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've 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,'" she said.
In addition to testing old kits and improving the process to test new ones, the six-year initiative also saw the state adopt new statewide protocols for sexual assault forensic examiners and training thousands of investigators in best practices for sexual assault cases. Murphy's division also received legislative approval this year to add a new position and is currently hiring for the new Sexual assault Forensic Response Coordinator role.
All of this work will make Iowa law enforcement better able to investigate and prosecute sexual assaults and more responsive to the needs of survivors, Bayens said.
"Future sexual assaults may be better solved and better addressed because if we had someone that was engaged in serial sexual assaults … now a sexual assault kit that was entered into CODIS five years ago is now hitting one that happened a week ago," he said.
This article has been updated to correctly state that Myron Brandon was convicted at trial for his kidnapping and transportation charges.
By the numbers:
4,275: untested sexual assault kits when the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative began.
1,606: Kits selected for testing.
852: Valid DNA profiles developed from testing.
290: Matches found for those profiles in federal databases.
26: DNA profiles matched to people already convicted of sex crimes.
4: New criminal cases filed.
439: Sexual assault kits tested at the DCI Criminalistics Laboratory in 2018.
433: Kits tested by the lab in 2019.
1,298: Kits tested in 2020.
734: Kits tested in 2021 as of Nov. 30.
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa's rape kit backlog eliminated through $3M, 6-year program