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 spat 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.
“It’s the nature of the beast. Prosecutors have to prove their cases, and so need to have evidence analyzed,” says Kim Herd of the American Prosecutors Research Institute.
Mr. Ferrara, who heads the Division of Forensic Science in the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Service, acknowledges DNA testing is an expensive program. He estimates the national price tag is around $500 million.
Virginia’s annual DNA costs are about $6 million, which represents slightly more than a quarter of Mr. Ferrara’s entire budget. “Everyone will say DNA testing is worth the cost in spades,” Mr. Ferrara says.
The federal government has provided grant money to help forensic labs enter DNA samples into databases. Last August, the Justice Department announced grants to seven states — California, Florida, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and New Jersey — for that purpose.
To date, 21 states have received a total exceeding $14 million in such grant money, awarded by the department’s Institute of Justice, Mr. Asplen says.
In addition, Congress last year authorized spending $512 million over the next six years for lab testing, training, equipment and quality assurance procedures. To date, however, the measure has not been funded.
Congress also approved spending $170 million over the next four years to help reduce testing backlogs in DNA labs. But even that money is not a certainty.
As Mike Lawlor of the National Conference of State Legislatures said at a House subcommittee hearing early last month, Congress is trying to tie both funding measures to another legislative proposal: the Innocence Protection Act of 2001. That bill would require states to give those convicted of capital crimes greater access to DNA testing, among other things.
Federal funding to clear DNA testing backlogs would be cut off to states that do not comply with the terms of the Innocence Protection Act.
“In other words, all that has been gained under the two vitally important grant bills will be lost if states are forced to comply with the terms contained in the one-size-fits-all ,” Mr. Lawlor told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform.
He said he foresees some states simply not applying for federal funding rather than trying to comply with what they perceive to be “overly burdensome federal mandates.”
Sacramento Police Detective Peter Willover has first-hand knowledge of the value of DNA in solving crimes. Last fall, he was involved in the arrest of a suspect in a 1994 rape who had been identified in a warrant only by his DNA.
But Detective Willover is well aware of the backlog problems that plague most DNA laboratories, and he worries they could ultimately delay justice.
“Here in California, all vials of blood to be tested for DNA are sent to a state lab in Berkeley. I believe many of those vials sit there unanalyzed,” he says.
Michael Van Winkle, a spokesman for the California Department of Justice, says his state is catching up. This spring, about 100,000 samples awaited coding, a process required so that analyzed samples can be subjected to a computer search. Today, that figure is between 30,000 and 40,000, he says.
“We’re caught up in terms of analyzing samples and developing DNA profiles,” Mr. Van Winkle says. “And we’re rapidly closing in on getting the entire former backlog of convicted felons made searchable in our database.”
The advances made by California in eliminating the backlog, he says, were the result of increased state funding that allowed more lab technicians to be hired and more sophisticated equipment to be purchased.
But not all states are sharing in California’s progress. Five states — New Hampshire, Louisiana, Hawaii, Iowa, and Idaho — don’t yet have operational DNA databases.
DNA analysis is in “its infancy in this state,” says Sgt. William Davis, spokesman for the Louisiana State Police.
“In this state, we have legislation calling for collection of DNA samples for inclusion in a database, but, at this point, we don’t have a database,” says Melissa Weber, assistant director of the New Hampshire State Police Department’s forensic lab in Concord. She expects the database to go online within six months.
Idaho officials say operation of their DNA database is imminent, and those in Iowa hope theirs will be ready by year’s end.
As Mr. Lawlor of the National Conference of State Legislatures told Congress last month, “As more states increase the list of offenses for which DNA must be collected, state facilities simply cannot keep up with the demand for testing and analysis.”
A network of information
The national DNA database, operated by the FBI, is known as the National DNA Index System (NDIS).
Since its introduction in 1998, 36 states have been connected to the network, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson says.
A DNA profile can be searched against the databases of other states hooked into the system. Such resources are vital, given that repeat offenders commit three out of four crimes, Mr. Ferrara says.
But the benefits of testing are lost if DNA samples from convicted violent offenders are not entered into databases.
“When you are taking samples from convicted offenders, you are taking blood or saliva. You can put such samples on a robotics machine that can test them more quickly” than other types of DNA evidence, Mr. Asplen says. He notes that testing such samples costs as little as $50.
“Technologically, DNA testing is much faster today than it used to be. But that’s not relevant because of the problems of backlogs and the number of new cases,” Mr. Asplen says.
Virginia is one of seven states that takes DNA samples from all felons.
Another 15 states are considering expanding their DNA databases by collecting biological evidence from all convicted felons, Mr. Ferrara says.
Miss Weber of the New Hampshire DNA Lab says the programs in Virginia and Florida are widely recognized as being among the nation’s largest, busiest and most advanced. It’s a good thing, she says, given the crime statistics in those states.
Virginia’s four DNA labs — in Richmond, Fairfax County, Roanoke and Norfolk — have an average turnaround of three months and an average of 400 analyses waiting to be done, Mr. Ferrara says.
Maryland’s DNA testing program has not received the same national attention as that of its neighbor to the south.
But Maj. Greg Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, says turnaround time in his state’s forensic lab averages two to 21/2 months.
“We aren’t late with DNA analyses. We work closely with prosecutors across the state to make sure evidence is available for trials,” he says.
However, Maryland’s DNA analysts are hampered by the cramped 24,000-square-foot laboratory in which they work.
Designed for 36 technicians, the lab in Pikesville now houses 52. Another 14 DNA technicians are forced to work in a separate building.
A new $22 million crime lab is planned near the existing one. It will be twice as large but will not be completed until 2004.
Turning to private labs
Many government forensic labs swamped with untested DNA evidence and “rape kits” — swabs of tissue from the mouth, vagina and anus of a rape victim — are turning to private laboratories for assistance.
Private labs are helping the state of New York work through its inventory of over 17,000 rape kits that never had been looked at, at a cost of approximately $2,000 per kit.
Maj. Shipley of the Maryland State Police says his state enlisted Bode Technology Group to test a backlog of around 8,500 DNA samples from convicted offenders. Those samples are to be entered in a DNA database.
Miss Johnson of Bode Technology says her employer has similar contracts with at least five other states needing help getting DNA samples entered into databases.
But having private labs do such testing is costly.
Miss Johnson says her firm charges between $895 and $3,000 per test.
Robert J. Spagnoletti, chief of the sex offenses and domestic violence unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District, says he has been forced to turn to private labs because of backlogs in the FBI lab, which the District normally uses.
“That causes us some difficulty because we have to compete for the FBI’s attention with other federal cases around the country,” he says. “It takes them a fairly long time to get our samples tested.”
D.C. police have discussed the possibility of having their own technical personnel work at the FBI lab, handling local crime cases. But to date, funding has been a barrier, an FBI official says.
Mr. Spagnoletti says a person in the District detained and charged with a serious crime — such as second-degree murder, manslaughter or rape — is required by law to go to trial within 100 days.
“Sometimes, it’s dangerously close” to that deadline before the relevant DNA evidence is obtained from the lab, he says. “Sometimes it comes too late.”