Law enforcement officials say they have lost track of evidence from a 1980 murder case that an Iowa inmate wants to examine for DNA that could prove his innocence or confirm his guilt.
William Beeman of Muscatine is serving a life sentence in the stabbing death of 22-year-old Michiel Winkel of rural Muscatine. The missing evidence could prevent the public from knowing definitively whether Beeman is the right man in the rape and violent death of Winkel — or should be Iowa's first inmate exonerated by DNA.
Winkel's nude body was found behind a log on April 26, 1980, at Wildcat Den State Park near Muscatine. Investigators initially focused on several men who were her friends or boyfriends but within two weeks zeroed in on Beeman, an acquaintance who was the disc jockey at a nightclub Winkel frequented.
Beeman was convicted based largely on a confession that investigators prepared and he signed at the end of a two-day interrogation. Prosecutors argued at trial that Beeman and Winkel randomly met in Muscatine on April 21, 1980. They allege he took her for a motorcycle ride to the park and raped and killed her after she rejected his advances.
Winkel had been kicked in the head, choked and stabbed 17 times in the chest. Investigators used a now-debunked "knife-swipe analysis" technique to argue that two knives Beeman owned were consistent with marks found on Winkel's stomach.
Now a 62-year-old inmate at the Iowa State Penitentiary, Beeman has claimed since 1980 that his confession was false and that he signed it only to end an unrecorded interrogation that left him scared and confused. But courts have upheld the confession.
His lawyers filed a motion last month seeking DNA testing on a sexual assault kit that included sperm and blood recovered from Winkel and several items of her clothing found at the scene.
But officials with the Division of Criminal Investigation and Muscatine County Sheriff's Office said in court filings last week that they have searched and cannot find the evidence. They say retired investigators who worked the case also have no idea of its whereabouts. Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren has asked a judge to deny the request for DNA testing.
"There is nothing that can be done about the inability of the agencies to locate the evidence," he wrote, noting that police weren't required to keep evidence that could be tested for DNA until Iowa law changed in 2005.
A judge has scheduled a hearing next week on the matter.
Beeman's lawyers want to know what evidence retention protocols were in place in 1980 and how extensively investigators searched for the items. One crime lab record shows the evidence was given to a DCI agent in October 1980 to be returned to the submitting agency, the sheriff's office. What happened next is unknown.
Beeman's lawyers say that if DNA from the sperm can be analyzed and is consistent with another man's profile, that could prove their client has been wrongly imprisoned for 39 years. They say Beeman's claims of innocence are bolstered by a lack of evidence tying him to the scene and testimony that put Beeman elsewhere and Winkel with another man at a hotel spa on April 21.
In addition, a bank receipt found in Winkel's purse was dated April 22 — the day after prosecutors claimed she was killed. That's significant because Beeman had an alibi that day: it was his 23rd birthday and he celebrated with friends at his club, where he broke his foot. Prosecutors didn't give the receipt to the defense before trial, but jurors discovered it when examining Winkel's purse. The judge told jurors to disregard the receipt, calling it hearsay. Prosecutors later argued the receipt was post-dated to reflect an April 21 deposit, but that explanation doesn't add up because the transaction was a withdrawal to pay a debt.
More than 360 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, but Iowa is among 13 states that haven't had such a case, according to the Innocence Project.