Missing DNA evidence hampers wrongful conviction fight in Iowa

Print More

In June, William Beeman, who is serving a life sentence in the Iowa Department of Corrections for a 1980 murder, asked a judge to order a DNA evidence test that he contends could prove his innocence. But police agencies involved in the case say they still can’t find the evidence to test.

The missing items include a rape kit recovered from the body of the victim, 22-year-old Michiel Winkel, and bloody clothes from the state park where authorities found her dead. Beeman was a local DJ in rural Muscatine County, on the state’s eastern border, when police arrested him for murdering Winkel, who had been an acquaintance.

Beeman’s attorneys argue that DNA evidence could shed more light on a crime with multiple suspects, no eyewitnesses, and a confession Beeman claims was coerced by police. But the 62-year-old inmate, scheduled for a Thursday status hearing before Muscatine County Judge Stuart Werling, faces long odds in his wrongful conviction fight.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be Mr. Beeman in this instance, waiting, thinking there could be a way to prove your innocence, and no one can find [the evidence] — and we don’t know why they can’t find it —  that is what is so distressing,” said Tricia Bushnell, one of Beeman’s attorneys and executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.

For many Iowa prisoners, like Beeman, the right to post-conviction DNA evidence testing exists in theory but not in practice. That is especially true for those convicted in the 1980s and ‘90s before DNA testing became a fixture in criminal investigations and trials, and states began requiring police to preserve evidence.

Iowa is among 13 U.S. states where no prisoner has ever successfully used DNA testing to overturn their conviction, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization focused on exonerating wrongfully convicted people. Iowa lawmakers passed legislation in June that reduced barriers to post-conviction DNA evidence tests in several ways. The law, which went into effect on July 1, was changed so that defendants no longer have to prove that evidence is in suitable condition for analysis before a judge can grant a hearing on their post-conviction DNA test, a tough feat for anyone let alone an incarcerated individual. The state legislature also added an amendment so that defendants can request that previously examined evidence be retested with new technology.

But roadblocks remain. Iowa’s DNA preservation law falls short of best practices prescribed by forensic science experts. Bushnell characterized Iowa as one of the hardest places in the country to successfully petition for post-conviction DNA testing.

“I think one of the hardest moments was after we got the new DNA post-conviction testing statute passed and [wondered], ‘are we even going to be able to find evidence to test?’” Bushnell said.

Today, evidence preservation practices in Iowa are “typically very good,” said Brian Reeve, lab administrator for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. Reeve credited advanced information management systems for vastly improving evidence tracking — but acknowledged that older practices from many decades ago still pose problems today in post-conviction cases.

Iowa only began requiring in 2005 that police preserve DNA evidence from crimes, after nearly 30 other states had done the same over the prior five years. But police can still destroy DNA evidence three years after the statute of limitations expires in a criminal case. That means authorities don’t have to maintain biological evidence for a person’s entire prison term. Iowa law also lacks clear legal standards about how different types of evidence, like blood, semen or other bodily fluids, should be kept in proper condition, packaged and documented for easy retrieval. Authorities don’t face legal consequences for evidence spoliation, and are not required by state law to notify defendants before trashing evidence.

Reeve, with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, suggested that local police agencies could benefit from more resources to invest in climate controlled evidence storage facilities, case management systems, and training on collecting and maintaining evidence.

Erica Nichols Cook, director of the state public defender’s wrongful conviction unit and a member of Beeman’s defense team, said Iowa’s legislature should build in uniform requirements for how long evidence should be preserved, how it should be stored, and how to document its whereabouts. Iowa’s restrictive open records law also hinders attorneys’ efforts to obtain police reports that could help determine what evidence police recovered and where it is–another challenge, she said.

“Where is the accountability, and how do we ensure this system is fair and impartial?” Nichols Cook asked.

Mike McKelvey, president of the Iowa Peace Officers Association and captain of operations at the Mason City Police Department, agreed that the lack of statewide standards for maintaining evidence is a problem, but said that law enforcement shouldn’t be held accountable when the state legislature hasn’t set out clear guidelines for DNA evidence preservation.

“I think there is a lot of subjectivity between the agencies, what they do, how often they do it, and reasons for purging evidence,” he said. “There is not a statewide criteria that I am aware of on a lot of the day in, day out evidence.”

A “disturbing” review

From December 2016 to September this year, the Iowa Office of the Public Defender collaborated with the Midwest Innocence Project to review about 80 old criminal cases for the possibility of biological evidence that could lead to DNA exonerations. Many of the people convicted in the cases are serving life sentences and were convicted before the turn of the century. Nichols Cook and Bushnell said the project allowed them to better understand the systemic barriers in the state to accessing DNA evidence that could lead to an exoneration.

“We found some really disturbing things that will be helpful as we move forward and continue to work through the list of people claiming actual innocence,” Nichols Cook said.

They found in many cases that authorities had destroyed or misplaced biological evidence from crime scenes and mishandled documentation of trial evidence. In other instances, evidence succumbed to natural disasters. Nichols Cook said attorneys identified at least eight cases in Linn County where flooding destroyed evidence.

Other unforeseen barriers hampered the review. In over 30 cases defendants did not consent to testing for several reasons. Some defendants had died in prison. Some were out on parole and couldn’t be located, or balked at having to revisit their cases. Other cases lacked proof that DNA testing could shed new light.

Only six of the original 80 cases moved forward for further research and potential re-testing. Tests or testing requests are pending in four where evidence was located. In two cases, attorneys determined DNA testing could shed new light that might lead to Iowa’s first DNA exonerations, but the search for evidence continues.

Beeman’s case is one of them.

Officials with the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office have signed sworn affidavits reporting their own fruitless searches through evidence storage rooms and investigative files.

The same goes for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, which supports local law enforcement agencies with forensic science services upon request but outsourced DNA analyses to the FBI or private labs prior to 1995.

“There is nothing that can be done about the inability of the agencies to locate the evidence,” Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren wrote in a motion asking Judge Stuart Werling to reject Beeman’s request for DNA evidence testing.

The judge ordered the county attorney’s office to allow Beeman’s lawyers to search all evidence and storage locations for the items in August. Nichols Cook said they haven’t found anything so far.

If the items don’t surface soon, the court will probably deny Beeman’s motion for testing, Nichols Cook said. Beeman would have to somehow find new evidence of innocence, nearly 40 years after his conviction.