Virginia's DNA databank, which catalogues genetic profiles of almost 200,000 felons, has helped to capture more than 1,000 violent criminals in cases long abandoned as unsolved, state law enforcement officials said last week.
Police and prosecutors are hailing the success of the forensics program and urging greater funding for it. It can take months for the investigative tool to produce results, they said, because as more police turn to DNA to solve crimes, the databank's backlog grows.
"The state is really missing the boat by not putting more resources into this program," said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. "Think of the value a tool like this would have to law enforcement if they were to get more timely results."
By the end of October, the latest breakdown available, Virginia's database had helped to solve 109 homicides, 241 rapes, 12 rape-homicides, 57 robberies, 47 carjackings, 9 malicious woundings, 465 burglaries/larcenies and 86 other crimes. State officials said about a fourth of the cases were crimes committed in Northern Virginia.
"Virginia is safer today because the state moved aggressively to set up the DNA database 13 years ago," Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said after touring the state's laboratory in Richmond. "Criminals cannot run from the long arm of science."
The DNA databank was compiled by taking genetic samples, first from criminals convicted of sexual assault and, starting in 1990, from all adult felons. In 1994, the program was expanded to include samples from all violent criminals older than 14. The database is the largest in the country.
Starting in January, people arrested but not yet convicted of a violent felony will be required to submit DNA samples. If the suspect is acquitted or the case is dismissed, those samples would be expunged.
Police submit DNA samples from unsolved crimes to a laboratory, where they are tested and matched against those in the database. When a match is found -- officials call it a "cold hit" -- police are then able to build their case with a name to go on.
One such opportunity came in 1992, when someone stabbed Marilyn M. Bandera more than 150 times in her Fairfax County home. The case languished until June 2000, when DNA from the eight-year-old slaying was matched to that of a Leesburg man who had pleaded guilty to robbing a gas station. Mack Reaves III was sentenced last year to life in prison in the case.
Authorities got another cold hit last year in a high-profile case when police in Alexandria searched for nine weeks to find the killer of 8-year-old Kevin Shifflett. But a suspect didn't emerge until genetic material from a taxicab was sent to the state forensics laboratory.
Nine weeks after the stabbing, Gregory Murphy, a parolee with a violent past, was arrested. Murphy has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial and is being medicated.
"The creation of this national system of DNA databanks probably represents the greatest technological revolution and investigative aid to law enforcement to come along in the last 100 years," said Paul Ferrara, the director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, which runs the lab.
"Because we can get DNA in minute amounts from things like hatbands and cigarette butts and dental floss and bagels and beer cans -- the list goes on and on -- it makes it an extremely powerful and revolutionary investigative tool," Ferrara said.
Prosecutors say the tool is underused because of the limited capacity of the laboratory to process genetic matches quickly. Ferrara's division operates on $25 million annually and has recently agreed to a 9 percent cut to help balance the state budget.
In January, Warner and lawmakers will have to cut more than $1 billion from the state's $50 billion biennial budget because of falling tax revenue and the increasing cost of services. Warner has already cut the budget by about $850 million.
Ferrara said that he is not expecting any increase in his budget and that the databank will continue to operate well.
"We're glad to hang on to what we've got," he said.
But Sengel, Alexandria's top prosecutor, said his counterparts statewide are frustrated by delays that can adversely affect investigations and trials. He noted that he sent DNA from a case in July and received the results from the state's Northern Virginia lab this month.
"I have nothing but the highest respect for Paul Ferrara," Sengel said. "Around the state you will find that even though the lab makes an effort to prioritize, they are just not able to produce the stuff as quickly as would really be useful."
A state constitutional amendment approved by voters Nov. 5 could place an even greater burden on the lab. Voters cleared the way for the Virginia Supreme Court to consider DNA evidence that could prove a convicted felon's innocence.
In 2001, the state legislature made it easier for convicted felons to have genetic testing done. But state law did not allow courts to consider the new evidence. The amendment gives the Supreme Court that ability.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), an early promoter of DNA technology in the criminal justice system, said his office is seeking ways to expand the DNA lab despite the state's budget crisis.
"I know it's a bad time to ask for more funding," Kilgore said.
He said his office would like to give the lab the ability to use what scientists call "mitochondrial DNA," a process that would allow testing with tiny samples of hair, bones or charred skin. He said that might cost $1.5 million.
"We are looking for funding streams and opportunities," Kilgore said. "It's important that Virginia continue to lead on this issue."