DNA Backlog Slows Judicial Process

By Price, Joyce Howard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

DNA Backlog Slows Judicial Process


Price, Joyce Howard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Joyce Howard Price

With an accuracy rate of 99.9 percent, DNA testing has become a powerful tool for fingering crime suspects. But demand for it has grown so large that the government laboratories that process the results are struggling to keep up.

"DNA is the most revolutionary weapon to come along in the criminal justice field since fingerprinting was first introduced 100 years ago," says Paul B. Ferrara, head of the Virginia state crime lab in Richmond.

Its widespread use has placed a huge strain on limited laboratory resources.

"There is a logjam in the lab system," says Christopher Asplen, executive director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.

Only in high-profile cases - such as that of Rep. Gary A. Condit, the California Democrat whose DNA has been collected to aid in the search for missing former intern Chandra Ann Levy - are DNA results made available in a matter of weeks.

For most DNA tests, results come within three to six months. For cases involving samples of bones, teeth and hair, the testing process can take a year.

The delay can have tragic consequences.

Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, said six- or seven-month waits for testing of DNA evidence are common in his state.

"That's six or seven months when a violent, predator criminal could and may well commit other crimes," he told the San Antonio Express-News.

That's exactly what happened in the case of paroled offender Gary Dale Cox, who was not identified in a Texas kidnapping case and went on to abduct several other children. Had Cox's DNA been analyzed and put into a database right away, he would have been quickly identified and taken off the streets.

Adding to an already heavy burden, states are attempting to take DNA samples from a prison population approaching 2 million in order to put the information in state and national databases. All 50 states have passed laws requiring collection of DNA from convicted sex offenders, and 34 states have enacted statutes requiring that DNA be taken from those convicted of other crimes.

To address this shortfall, Congress has appropriated money for more state DNA labs and technicians. But funding remains in doubt, leaving the states to either live with the backlogs for the time being or look for other, sometimes costly, alternatives to the current system.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains a person's genetic material and is found in nearly every cell in the body. Each person's DNA is unique, except in identical twins.

If a suspect's DNA matches evidence found at a crime scene, the odds that someone else committed the crime would be 1 in 300 million, says Shelley Johnson, senior forensic DNA analyst for Bode Technology Group, a private DNA laboratory in Springfield.

DNA screening has become routine in rape cases, at least those in which a suspect has been identified. DNA is also commonly used in child-abuse cases and in murders in which the perpetrator had physical contact with his victim. All states require DNA to be drawn from convicted sex offenders.

"DNA testing is done whenever biological samples - such as semen, saliva, hair or blood - are available in a crime," says Susan Gaertner, a district attorney in Ramsey County, Minn., and co-chairman of the National District Attorneys Association's DNA subcommittee.

Samples have been obtained in novel ways. In Florida last year, investigators tailing Robert Eric Denney, 19, got the hard evidence they needed when the suspect spit on the sidewalk, thus allowing them to collect his DNA and link it with samples found at the crime scene. He was later arrested in connection with the stabbing death of a waitress.

Most news stories on DNA focus on imprisoned inmates who ask for the screening to try to prove their innocence. But most of the requests for DNA testing today are coming from prosecutors - not defense lawyers. …

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