The Justice Department has awarded $2.1 million to help Virginia get through its six-month backlog of untested DNA samples that detectives hope will help them solve crimes and that prisoners think will exonerate them.
The grants, announced Tuesday at the state forensics lab, represent Virginia's share of a $95 million pool to help states cope with a nationwide backlog and expand DNA testing of crime scene evidence. The grants, announced by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft on Monday in Pittsburgh, are the first awarded under President Bush's five-year, $1 billion plan to advance the use of DNA technology.
"We've seen time and again the important contribution DNA analysis can bring to the justice community," Deborah J. Daniels, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's office of justice programs, said at a news conference.
Maryland received more than $3 million in grants, and the District was awarded nearly $700,000.
More than half of Virginia's grant money was awarded to the four crime labs operated by the Division of Forensic Science. The funds will "help tremendously," said Paul Ferrara, director of the division.
Ferrara said the grants will be for hiring and training scientists to join the 52 now processing DNA, to pay lab workers overtime, to expand facilities and to buy equipment.
About $340,000 was awarded to the University of Virginia for DNA research. The American Prosecutors Research Institute in Alexandria was awarded $400,000 for training.
As DNA technology has evolved and more samples have been collected, labs have struggled to keep up. A Justice Department study last year found that more than 500,000 DNA samples are awaiting testing nationwide.
The backlog has drawn criticism because it lets crimes languish unsolved, giving criminals time to commit other offenses. It also prevents inmates from being exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, which has freed more than 150 wrongly convicted prisoners nationwide, three of them in Virginia.
Virginia has been a leader in DNA testing. It created the nation's first DNA database in 1989, and a year later it began requiring samples from all felons. Last year, the state began collecting samples from anyone charged with a violent felony. Virginia now has the largest database in the country, with more than 221,000 samples.
As of July 31, more than 2,000 "hits" in the Virginia system have helped police solve about 400 rapes, 200 homicides and 1,200 burglaries or robberies, according to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. A hit occurs when DNA evidence taken from the scene of a crime with no identified suspect matches DNA in the database.
Nevertheless, Virginia's labs are about six months behind. At the end of August, more than 2,000 DNA records were awaiting analysis, Ferrara said.
Ferrara blamed the backlog in part on the increasing sophistication of forensic science, which can now be used to identify DNA from saliva on cigarette butts, skin cells on steering wheels and other minute evidence. As law enforcement agencies have learned the powers of DNA technology, they have flooded labs with such samples.
The labs prioritize some samples, including those from especially violent crimes or from cases that are going to trial soon. But they do not have enough staffing, equipment or space to process everything, Ferrara said. Processing the evidence for one case can take anywhere from one day to several months.
S. Randolph Sengel, the commonwealth's attorney in Alexandria, said: "What you're dealing with typically is the conflict between the reality of the resources we have as state law enforcement agencies versus what you see on television, where they get a DNA analysis back in 30 minutes."
DNA evidence, when entered into the database, can help police solve a crime when they have little else to go on. On Tuesday, Daniels pointed to the case of James Earl Patterson, who pleaded guilty to capital murder in 2000 after Prince George County investigators entered evidence from a 1987 rape and slaying into the state DNA data bank. They got a "cold hit" with Patterson's DNA, which was added to the database in 1990 or 1991, while he served a 25-year sentence for a 1988 rape in Sussex. He would have been released by 2005 if the DNA had not been matched. Patterson was executed in 2002.
"Virginia is just testament to the fact that we really need to test all felons, and we need to test crime scenes as well," Daniels said.