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Senate Subcommittee Examines DNA Testing

On May 14, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs held a hearing on the use of DNA evidence in combating sexual assault crimes. Subcommittee Chair Joseph Biden (D-DE) remarked that DNA evidence has “proven incredibly useful in investigating and prosecuting sexual assault crimes” and has “literally revolutionized the criminal justice system.” The same day, Sen. Biden introduced a bill (S. 2513) that would increase funding for DNA testing, in order to “assess the extent of the backlog in DNA analysis of rape kit samples, and improve investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases with DNA evidence.”

During the hearing, Dwight E. Adams of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discussed the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This software, used to maintain and run DNA databases, combines forensic science and computer technology to solve violent crimes. After the FBI’s National DNA Index System (NDIS) was established in 1998, CODIS was implemented at the federal, state, and local levels.

Mr. Adams explained that DNA analysis is useful because “DNA is a unique identifier…found in almost every cell in the body and is exactly the same in every cell. Because it is unique to each individual, the DNA collected from a crime scene can be used to eliminate a suspect in a case or link a suspect to the evidence.” Moreover, Mr. Adams added, “DNA maintains its integrity so that evidence from crimes committed many years ago may still yield sufficient DNA to conduct an analysis.”

According to Mr. Adams, CODIS has been used in 4,719 investigations in 32 states and two federal laboratories. Mr. Adams stressed that a standardized procedure is not federally mandated; therefore, states may choose whether to be a part of CODIS. Currently, there are 10 states not in the NDIS. However, eight states recently applied for inclusion in the system. Sen. Biden made clear that the end goal is for “all laboratories to be a part of a national system.”

J. Tom Morgan of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) noted that “Congress should fully fund a national databank which would offer important investigative and public safety tools for prosecutors.” He said, “There must be an up-to-date and seamless interface between the states and federal systems to allow comparisons to be made in real world times,” because “undue delay in making comparisons means another woman or child is victimized or a suspect disappears yet again.”

Also testifying before the subcommittee was Sarah Hart of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Ms. Hart noted that “experience has taught law enforcement that the more offenders that are included in the database, the more crimes that will be solved.” She also explained that there has been an increase in the backlog of DNA samples awaiting analysis in state and local laboratories since FY2000. In addition, a 1999 government report found a minimum of 180,000 rape kits in police departments and laboratories around the nation that had not been tested. Sen. Biden noted that since then there have been approximately 500,000 untested rape kits and the numbers increase daily.

Last year, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized the transfer of $25 million from the Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture fund to the NIJ in an effort to reduce this backlog. Additionally, the Attorney General directed the Office of Justice Programs, of which the NIJ is a part, to ensure that the DNA-related assistance grants “are used in a manner that maximizes the effectiveness of DNA technology as a tool to solve crimes and promote public safety.” According to Ms. Hart, the NIJ has convened a group of over 25 experts on the use of DNA evidence to help with this effort.

The hearing’s most powerful testimony came from Debbie Smith, a Virginia resident who was raped in 1989. Ms. Smith explained the emotional trauma she experienced saying, “For the first time in my life, I couldn’t find any reason to live.” Her husband, also a police officer, convinced her to go to the hospital to have evidence collected with a rape kit. As a result, Ms. Smith’s attacker was found in 1995 when a DNA sample taken from a prison inmate matched the sample taken from evidence from her case. With this discovery, she said, “They had unpacked the box that contained my release from fear…my freedom had been delivered.” She continued, “It breaks my heart to see shelf after shelf filled with old, untested rape kits, each kit representing a life in turmoil.”

Last year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced the Debbie Smith Act (H.R. 2874) and in March of this year, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced similar legislation (S. 2055). The bill would make grants to train sexual assault nurse examiners, law enforcement personnel, and first responders in the handling of sexual assault cases; establish minimum standards for forensic evidence collection kits; and carry out DNA analyses of samples from crime scenes.

Speaking on behalf of the Association of Criminal Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), Susan Narveson said that the ASCLD “strongly supports the timely analysis of all forensic cases; however, the provision of the Debbie Smith Act that calls for a 10-day turn around time for the DNA analysis of sexual assault kits sets an unrealistic time requirement for completion of these cases.” According to Ms. Narveson, “a more reasonable and realistic turn-around time would be 30 days.”

Debra Holbrook, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), explained that SANEs are “on call at all times to collect DNA, trace and photograph evidence, assure advocacy and testify in court” for sexual assault and violence victims of all ages. She continued that forensic nurses “have answered healthcare’s call to care for victims of sexual assault” and that they “provide a vital link in the Sexual Assault Response Team between healthcare and law enforcement.” Ms. Holbrook said, “SANE teams across the country are in jeopardy of closing due to a lack of both funding and cooperation from law enforcement.” However, she added, “This legislation has the power to forever change the scenario” for victims of sexual violence.

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