Statute Impedes DNA Exonerations; Iowa Falls Behind in Freeing Innocent Convicts

May 31, 2018

DNA exonerations for unjustly convicted defendants aren’t happening in Iowa the way they are in other states, and Iowa’s DNA statute has something to do with that.  

That’s what officials at the Iowa Public Defender’s office are arguing, after an unsuccessful attempt this year to update the law to make it more likely that innocent people could be freed.     

Assistant State Public Defender Kurt Swaim says Iowa is one of only a few states in the country with no  DNA exonerations.

With the progression of testing our statute has not kept up to date. -Deputy Public Defender Kurt Swaim

“DNA has been used to test convictions and basically a lot of people across the country have been exonerated,” Swaim said. “If you draw a circle around the state of Iowa, all the states around us have had at least one and most of had multiple DNA exonerations and we've not had one,” Swaim said.

That led the public defender’s office to examine problems with Iowa’s post-conviction DNA statute that was passed in 2005.  

“Nobody that we have been able to find has ever been able to successfully utilize our post-conviction DNA statute,” Swaim said. “There's a couple of barriers to allow somebody to successfully use it.”

The State Public Defender’s office sponsored HF2450 to remove those barriers.   For example, under the current law, to get an order to allow testing, a defense attorney must prove the evidence is suitable for testing.

“You can’t prove that until the testing is done,” Swaim said, calling it a “Catch-22” in the law.

"The goal of the Iowa Senate is to reduce frivolous criminal appeals." -Sen. Dan Dawson

Also, the current law recognizes the DNA potential that was in place when it was passed in 2005, but the science has leaped well beyond that since then.

“They used to tell us if you have a specimen the size of a quarter that's enough, we can test it,” Swaim said.  

Now, technicians can test specimens microscopically.

“You don’t even have to be able to see it,” Swaim said.   “So with the progression of testing our statute has not kept up to date.”

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, led the subcommittee on HF2450.    He said there were numerous technical problems with the bill.

Also, he said, the bill had the potential to exacerbate an appeals system that is “getting out of hand.”

“The goal of the Iowa Senate is to reduce frivolous criminal appeals, not continue down the slippery slope of the 'perpetual criminal court case',” Dawson said in an e-mail. 

Also, Dawson said, there is already a backlog of DNA cases at the DCI crime lab.

Swaim says in the meantime defense attorneys are trying different strategies to admit DNA evidence in post-conviction cases in spite of the problems with the current law.