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House Committee Hearing Addresses DNA Backlog Processing

On April 10, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing, “The Reauthorization and Improvement of DNA Initiatives of the Justice for All Act of 2004.” The Justice for All Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-405) is set to expire at the end of FY2009, including the DNA backlog processing portion of the act, known as the Debbie Smith Act of 2004. The hearing also addressed the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 5057), which would extend until FY2014 the DNA backlog processing program of the Justice for All Act of 2004. The program provided $151 million each year for five years in grants to local and state governments to increase the testing of older DNA crime scene samples and process new samples rapidly.

Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) said, “As the nation’s police departments and prosecutors have come to recognize the value of DNA evidence in solving crimes, labs have collected DNA samples from increasing numbers of crime scenes and convicted offenders faster than they can examine and enter them in state and local databases. In fact, Congress has funded state and local law enforcement agencies to test nearly 104,000 DNA cases from 2004 to 2007 and funded [the testing of] 2.5 million convicted offender and arrestee samples. Yet the backlog remains almost level. Consequently, a large backlog of samples exists around the nation that could identify violent criminals at large…DNA evidence is indeed an invaluable tool for ensuring that the guilty are identified beyond any doubt. However, like any tool, it is only as useful as the extent to which it is employed and we must do everything we can to ensure that the available funding set aside to determine guilt or innocence is used to its fullest potential.”

Addressing post-conviction exoneration through DNA evidence, Ranking Member Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said, “The Kirk Bloodsworth DNA Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program was authorized by the Justice for All Act of 2004. In order to receive a grant under this program, the state must demonstrate that all jurisdictions within the state comply in practice with the requirements of the Kirk Bloodsworth provisions…This requirement is so restrictive that only three states submitted applications for Kirk Bloodsworth grants in 2007. And none were approved. To address this problem, Congress included language in the FY2008 appropriations act [P.L. 110-161] to lessen the grant requirements on applicant states. Surprisingly, despite these less burdensome grant requirements, only five states submitted applications for post-conviction grants in 2008… I am interested to learn why so few states are seeking federal grant assistance for post-conviction DNA testing.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who introduced the Debbie Smith Act in 2001, testified, “Inspired by Debbie’s story, I resolved to do something to combat the epidemic of violence against women in the United States, where a sexual assault occurs every two minutes. I knew that DNA processing techniques could serve as conclusive proof in countless other rape cases. But I was outraged that a backlog of hundreds of thousands of rape kits, with DNA evidence already collected, were gathering dust in police stations and crime labs all over the country, all because of inadequate government funding…DNA is remarkable evidence. It doesn’t forget, it can’t be confused, it can’t be intimidated, and it doesn’t lie.”

Debbie Smith, a rape victim whose assailant was discovered through DNA evidence six years later, said, “Perhaps if you can picture in your mind the reality of what I have seen in labs and police evidence lockers all across our great country you will have a sense of the urgency I feel. Row after row of shelves from floor to ceiling holding boxes of every size…dusty and untouched…Unfortunately, there is a very good chance that this vital evidence will sit on a shelf with another estimated 350,000 rape kits, each holding within it vital evidence that is crucial to the safety of women everywhere…We have made tremendous strides since the passing of the Debbie Smith Act but our success has also been our own worst enemy. As state legislators understand the power of DNA, they have broadened the types of offenses they have included in the database and more states are beginning to include all arrestees…With another five years of federal funding, crime labs can begin to eliminate their backlogs and the current unacceptable turnaround time will be shortened.”

Dr. David W. Hagy, director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, testified, “Through the President’s DNA Initiative, we are working to help ensure that DNA becomes a routine investigative tool for law enforcement. With the funding provided by Congress, NIJ funds state and local forensic laboratories to help reduce the backlog of untested evidence, identify missing persons, and is working to assist states to perform DNA testing in cases in which a person may have been wrongly convicted…NIJ has provided funding to expand the long-term capacity of criminal justice agencies to process DNA evidence on their own, for example through the purchase of modern equipment, hiring of more staff, and training of new analysts.”

Also testifying were Rep. David Reichert (R-WA); Peter Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science; Levon Brooks, who was convicted of murder but later exonerated due to DNA evidence; and Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project.

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