- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

Old DNA evidence has yielded solutions to seven rape cases over the past eight months in Fairfax County because of the police department’s new cold-case sex crimes division.

The Virginia forensic crime lab, however, has come under scrutiny for botching DNA tests in a high-profile capital murder case.

Fairfax County’s cold-case sex crimes division, which is the first of its kind in the Washington area, has solved cases dating back more than two decades.

In January, the unit arrested Renaldo H. White, 47, of Manassas, in connection with the rape of an Alexandria-area woman in 1983.

“It definitely is busier” than normal police work, said Detective Mike Pfeiffer, who is on the two-member unit. “There is definitely more gratification in solving the cases because … every one of the cases that we’re looking at would be considered a newsworthy event at the time it occurred.”

Before the unit’s inception in September, the county had solved six cold-case sex crimes since 2001.

Virginia has been on the forefront of using DNA to solve criminal cases.

In 1989, the General Assembly passed the nation’s first DNA data bank legislation, requiring all convicted sex offenders to provide a DNA sample to the Division of Forensic Science.

A year later, the law was expanded to include all convicted felons. In January 2003, the law was expanded further to include persons charged with violent felonies after a magistrate’s finding of probable cause.

As of April 30, the state’s data bank had 2,675 “hits.” A hit occurs when a DNA profile developed from any biological fluid, tissue or hair recovered from a crime scene is matched to a person in the DNA data bank. Virginia’s data bank contains 232,777 DNA samples.

The state’s nationally recognized lab came under fire last week when an independent audit concluded that it made several mistakes when retesting DNA samples in the case of a death-row inmate wrongfully convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpeper woman. Last fall, Gov. Mark Warner ordered the audit, which was conducted by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.

The audit cites the case of Earl Washington Jr., who was imprisoned for 17 yearsuntil he was pardoned in 2000 after new DNA technology became available and the sample used in his trial was reanalyzed.

Mr. Washington came within days of being executed in 1985 but was granted a stay. A 1993 DNA test cast doubt on his guilt and prompted Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to commute his sentence to life.

The retesting in 2000 identified someone else’s DNA from semen on a blanket. Gov. James S. Gilmore III pardoned Mr. Washington.

The audit showed that in Mr. Washington case, the state’s senior DNA analyst, Jeffrey Ban, made several errors, including prematurely excluding suspects when he should have ruled the DNA sample as inconclusive.

Because of the audit’s conclusions, state officials suspended Mr. Ban from certain cases involving “low-level” DNA samples in which the evidence contained amounts of DNA at or below normal detection limits.

Mr. Warner also ordered a review of the lab’s testing in as many as 150 other cases. Gubernatorial spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said 41 of Mr. Ban’s previous low-level samples and about 110 random low-level case samples analyzed by others at the lab would be retested.

Labs in Ohio, Montana and Texas have come under similar scrutiny, said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal advocacy group for people wrongly convicted through DNA evidence.

As of Thursday, it was not known whether any of the DNA evidence in question involved cases from Northern Virginia. “I can’t really speculate on what they’ll end up pulling to review,” Miss Qualls said. “It will probably be a random pulling.”

nThis article is based in part on wire service reports.

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