Felons' DNA Missing From Va. Database
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Virginia authorities have launched a massive review of the state's DNA database after discovering that thousands of felons may have skirted a legal requirement to submit genetic samples, partly because local and state agencies may have failed to make them do so.
Public safety and crime lab officials estimate that at least 20 percent of felons' DNA profiles could be missing from the database, a flaw that could hamper criminal investigations across the state and nation. Investigators routinely take crime scene evidence and run it through Virginia's database and others looking for DNA matches.
"The good news is it appears that we have well over 80 percent of convicted felons in the database, but obviously we need to have 100 percent of them in the database," said Clyde Cristman, deputy secretary of the Virginia Department of Public Safety.
Virginia law requires all convicted felons and those arrested in connection with violent crimes such as rape or homicide to submit cheek swabs for DNA analysis and entry into the statewide database. Currently, there are more than 253,000 samples in the database, according to the Department of Forensic Science Web site.
The Public Safety Department is working with the departments of Corrections, Forensic Science and Juvenile Justice to determine how many offenders' profiles are missing and why. The multi-agency review will begin with a check of about 54,000 people on probation or parole to verify that their samples have been processed.
Cristman said that about 12,000 cases have been examined. He could not say how many of those offenders' samples were missing from the data bank but said the number is in the thousands. It could take about two months to complete the review and update the data.
Long considered a national leader in DNA crime technology, Virginia has logged about 3,600 "cold hits" from its database -- matching biological evidence from a crime scene to an offender's DNA profile. Scores of violent crimes, including some homicides, have been solved that way. Virginia's database, like that of other states, forms part of a larger national DNA network that has similarly produced millions of cold hits.
Gaps in the state database could diminish the effectiveness of DNA as a crime-fighting tool, officials said. "In order to maximize effectiveness of the national DNA database, it is important to collect DNA samples from all persons authorized by state and federal legislation," said Ann Todd, a spokeswoman for the FBI crime lab.
Louisiana, which has some of the nation's broadest DNA collection laws, has become the envy of many states for a highly advanced and centralized computer system that allows jails, courts and law enforcement agencies to track which offenders have submitted DNA samples.
Cristman said his office was alerted to the problem several weeks ago when an investigation into a series of rapes in Charlottesville revealed that suspects with criminal backgrounds were not listed in the database. Charlottesville police Capt. J.E. "Chip" Harding discovered missing profiles after an audit revealed that 125 felons -- or 20 percent of the 600 supervised felons in Charlottesville and Albemarle County -- were not in the database.
But Virginia crime lab director Paul Ferrara said this week that he became aware of a possible problem earlier when a review last year of the state's more than 13,000 registered sex offenders uncovered 3,149 missing DNA profiles, or about 24 percent of the state registry.
"I'm not surprised that there are missing felons," Ferrara said. "What would be surprising is the magnitude. That's the thing we're not sure on."
Ferrara said some prisons and jails might have failed to take samples from offenders when the requirement was introduced in the 1990s because the importance of building a DNA database was not yet understood. The collection process might have been further complicated because until about 10 years ago, blood samples were to be taken by qualified medical technicians, who may not have been available, Ferrara said. But he and others pointed to clerical errors as another likely reason for the missing profiles.
"Sometimes you find they aren't missing, but it's just that if you query the database and you don't have the right Social Security number or right spelling on the name, you're not going to hit it," Cristman said.
He said that training on how to collect samples may need improvement and that the lack of a centralized state tracking system made it difficult to coordinate processing. "It's been a challenge in Virginia with various agencies working with different computer systems that don't talk to each other," Cristman said.
Experts say the problem in Virginia is symptomatic of growing gaps in DNA databases nationwide that have occurred as states have expanded the pool of offenders required to submit samples. Most states have long required DNA samples from people convicted of such violent crimes as murder or rape. But the increasing popularity of DNA as a crime-fighting tool has prompted widespread passage of laws to include samples for such lesser offenses as burglary. More recently some states -- including Virginia, California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas -- have begun to require samples from those arrested for certain crimes.
"Whenever you dump a tremendous increase in the samples to be tracked and collected, there's more chances of things being overlooked and things falling through the cracks," said Bill Marbaker, president of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.