D.C. Police Behind on DNA Tests of Old Evidence
Lab Would Compare Profiles To Backlog of Unsolved Cases
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page C01
D.C. police have a backlog of hundreds of unsolved homicides and rape cases that could benefit from DNA analysis, with the untested evidence sitting for years on shelves or stored in refrigerators at department buildings.
Testing the evidence could result in dozens of arrests in older cases if matches are found with DNA profiles of felons kept in national databases, investigators said. It also could help identify patterns, tying together seemingly unrelated crimes.
Although police routinely rely on DNA evidence in criminal investigations today, that was not the case as recently as a decade ago. Now the District is in the first stages of using the technology to solve older crimes.
Going through the old evidence is a major undertaking. Police officials said they are not sure how many cases in the department's massive Southeast Washington warehouse might contain DNA evidence. They made estimates based on the number of homicides and rapes in the past 20 years. More than 3,000 people have been slain and 2,500 people raped in the last decade alone.
"We have no idea what the scope of the problem is now, and we have been behind the eight ball for many, many years," said Detective Jim Trainum, who is at the center of the D.C. police department's DNA initiative. "We have gotten a late start."
Other departments across the country have launched major efforts to cull old cases for DNA. But D.C. police officials said they have fallen even further behind because they do not have their own laboratory to process the evidence.
D.C. police traditionally have relied on the FBI lab in Quantico. Although the FBI performs DNA tests for the District, police commanders said they did not want to overburden federal technicians with older cases when investigators needed quick results to solve more recent crimes. About half of the DNA evidence tested by the FBI lab comes from the D.C. police, federal officials said -- and that's without a crush of old cases.
"The FBI has a huge caseload of their own," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "They do not have enough resources to keep pace with our huge backlog."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has asked Congress for $9 million to help start building a state-of-the-art crime laboratory. Ramsey and others said the lab, which would cost an estimated $80 million, would help police comb through old cases more quickly and generate DNA profiles of potential suspects.
"DNA is the fingerprint of the 21st century," Ramsey said. "It is only going to get more and more sophisticated as time goes on. We need to keep pace with that. . . . A major police department, in a major city like ours, should have its own crime laboratory."
Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, has signaled his willingness to help the District but has not decided how sizable a contribution the federal government could make.
In the meantime, the department recently began to take some smaller, stopgap steps.
The city is hiring 10 new DNA technicians who will work and train at the FBI lab until the District gets its own facility. They should be at work in a few months, police officials said, giving the city more flexibility in sending DNA evidence for testing.
Trainum, a veteran investigator who helped solve a triple murder at a Starbucks coffee shop, heads a small group of unpaid interns who have spent the past two years delving through old homicide files. They hope to find evidence and witnesses that might help solve those killings.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company