Sunday, February 25, 2001

DNA test backlog may ease

Matches can be tool for unsolved crimes

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Investigators trying to identify a man who raped four young girls and a 27-year-old woman in Greater Cincinnati since 1998 may get a break this week.

        That's when Ohio authorities expect to clear up a logjam of nearly 22,000 samples — or 73 percent — of DNA samples collected in four years from certain offenders in state prisons.

        The samples were supposed to be analyzed and added to a national crime-fighting database called Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which can match evidence in unsolved crimes to DNA taken from offenders.

        But a lack of funding, staffing problems and changes in technology have set Ohio — and most other states — behind in analyzing their samples and adding them to the interstate system.

    Federal officials estimate the nationwide backlog of DNA samples taken from sex offenders and other criminals is about 600,000. Just more than a year ago, an FBI survey indicated that that nearly 708,000 — or 95 percent — of the specimens were unanalyzed, rendering ineffective a national database used to match evidence in unsolved crimes against those samples.
    As of Dec. 31, 1999, the states with the largest backlogs:
   • Virginia: 191,750.
   • California: 132,000.
   • Alabama: 63,000.
   • Florida: 55,100.
   • North Carolina: 29,100.
   • Washington: 28,300.
   • Ohio: 22,000.
   • Texas: 18,400.
   • Indiana: 17,400.
   • Illinois: 15,500.
   Source: FBI
        The local serial rapist, responsible for attacks in Montgomery, Colerain Township and Mason, has been quiet for more than a year, leading authorities to think he is dead or in prison.

        If it's the latter, state and local officials think the $1.2 million grant they received late last year from the National Institute of Justice to fix the backlog could pay off handsomely with a DNA match and an arrest.

        Armed with that money and the help of two out-of-state labs, Ohio hopes to clear the backlog by Wednesday.

        “The Mason case and other high-profile cases are CODIS-made cases,” said Ted Almay, superintendent of the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation. The agency oversees Ohio's DNA programs.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, who coordinates the local task force created to find the serial rapist, said he's hopeful.

        “Obviously, the place you look for criminals is in prison. It's very possible we could get a link that way,” he said.

        “Everyone knew when CODIS came on line, it would not be without some bumps in the road. We're optimistic that once it finally is, we will be able to get a hit on this case and other cases as well.”

        Mr. Almay said Ohio's CODIS program was backed up from its beginning in 1997, when his office received 12,000 vials of blood from prisoners in the first batch.

        Between then and last November, the state collected a total of 29,750 DNA samples from inmates convicted of a dozen serious crimes, including sex offenses, murder and burglary.

        But, until late this fall, only 8,000 were profiled, Mr. Almay said. The bureau held off on analyzing the samples until late 1999 because the FBI was upgrading CODIS to require a more specific method of DNA analysis, he said.

        There were other reasons.

        Ohio did not dedicate a staff to the venture and, like other states, chose to put CODIS on the back burner. That's because state scientists were trying to keep up with DNA analysis on evidence from police all over the state.

        “We didn't set CODIS as a priority. You have good intentions. But scientists are so buried in criminal work, they can't do the CODIS work. Criminal work comes first,” Mr. Almay said.

        Ohio's answer was to go after federal money, which became available last year, he said.

        In November, after receiving the grant, Ohio sent out the remaining samples to private labs in Utah and Virginia. They are being completed at a rate of 1,100 per week, Mr. Almay said.

        In other improvements, using its own $30.3 million budget, the bureau hired two DNA scientists and a coordinator to run the state's CODIS program inhouse and added more scientists to analyze DNA in criminal cases.

        Ohio's troubles with CODIS are not unique, federal officials say.

        In the latest figures available from the FBI, 95 percent of nearly 750,000 samples collected in 45 states remained unanalyzed by the end of 1999.

        Five states — Idaho, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana and New Hampshire — don't yet collect DNA from violent criminals offenders. Only 34 states, including Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, contribute to the national database that allows for interstate comparison, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said.

        In the Tristate, Kentucky has remained relatively caught up. Indiana officials said they are about 10,000 samples behind because many specimens were profiled using earlier technology and had to be redone. That is down more than 7,000 from 1999 FBI figures.

        Federal officials estimate that 600,000 or more DNA samples nationwide are still sitting.

        That backup will take at least another two years to clear up with the help of new funding, said Dr. Lisa Forman, acting director of investigative and forensic sciences division at the National Institute of Justice.

        Beginning last year, the institute, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, offered $23 million in grants to states to catch up on DNA analysis. Ohio was one of the first to receive a grant.

        A federal bill passed Jan. 24 allows for $170 million in grants for states to analyze DNA samples and improve their labs. The money is available through 2004.

        “This database is ready to fly. It will solve crimes, but until we were able to secure federal funding for it, we are unable to push it toward its first steps,” Dr. Forman said.

        However she and others fear backlogs could creep back up as legislators realize the value of DNA as a crime-solving tool and expand testing to more criminals.

        Kentucky officials see that coming.

        So far, Kentucky State Police have been able to avoid much of a backlog because the state requires DNA samples only from felony sex offenders. The state has 300 samples waiting to be analyzed and loaded into CODIS.

        However, the Kentucky Senate this month passed a proposal to expand testing to all violent felony offenders. That bill will be passed on to the House for consideration.

        “If they open that up to include more samples, that certainly will change the face of things,” said KSP spokesman Lt. Kevin Payne.

        “That would be an expensive, laborious, time-consuming project.”


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