Billion-Dollar DNA Testing Boost

Attorney General John Ashcroft holds up glass slide that would hold DNA samples, as he holds a news conference on President Bush's DNA initiative program, at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 11, 2003. Joining Ashcroft is the Director of Speaking Out About Rape, Inc. (SOAR) Kellie Greene, herself a rape victim. AP

Facing a huge national backlog of cases, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced plans Tuesday to seek $1 billion over five years to increase DNA analysis that has proved invaluable in solving crimes.

The plan, outlined in President Bush's budget request for 2004, would double the FBI's rate of processing DNA samples by 2005 and provide money for state and local laboratories to do the same. Police nationwide collect DNA samples from convicted felons but few have the resources to process them quickly, leading to the huge backlog.

The National Institute of Justice estimates that there is a backlog of up to 350,000 DNA samples in rape and homicide cases alone. There are between 500,000 and 1 million DNA samples from convicted offenders that are required by law to be collected but have not been.

The FBI has a backlog of approximately 18,000 DNA samples that are yet to be collected from those convicted of certain offenses including violent crime and terrorism

The news of improved DNA testing didn't come soon enough for one Texas prisoner, reports CBS News correspondent Bob McNamara.

In his fourth year of a 25-year prison sentence, an independent DNA testing lab has cleared Josiah Sutton of a rape conviction.

"Its something I been trying to get, something I been trying to get, something I been trying to say for years," he said.

Convicted at age 16 -- largely on DNA evidence -- Sutton's case was the latest in a string of questions into the Houston Police Department crime lab's practices and procedures.

DNA expert Bill Thompson's review of the Sutton case for CBS affiliate KHOU discovered that crime lab technicians misinterpreted findings and data was sometimes contaminated.

"As I look over the test results in a case like this, I think this is ridiculous," he said. "The procedures being used by this lab for typing DNA are simply not reliable."

The police crime lab has been shut down and the lab chief has retired. And now at least 25 DNA convictions may have to be reviewed, including the cases of seven people awaiting execution. And, this has happened before.

Thomas Webb was freed after 13 years in prison in Oklahoma after DNA cleared him of a rape conviction. Jeffrey Todd Pierce was released 15 years after questions about the DNA lab work of Joyce Gilchrist, Oklahoma City's former forensic chemist.

Some jurors who sent Sutton to prison are shaken.

"It's almost as if I did a crime myself, you know, because I helped put maybe an innocent person in prison," said Ronald Forrester.

After meeting with the president at the White House, Ashcroft discussed the proposal at a Justice Department news conference. He was joined by "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh and Kellie Greene, who is a rape survivor, reported CBS News producer Kathy Mountcastle

"DNA evidence can breathe new life into long-dormant investigations," Ashcroft said.

"Under the president's initiative, we will improve the use of DNA technology in the criminal justice system, especially in federal, state and local forensic laboratories. We'll improve it by providing funds, training and assistance. In particular, this initiative will allow law enforcement to analyze rape kits and other cold-case evidence that has gone unanalyzed for years."

The FBI's national DNA effort, begun in 1990, has scored more than 6,000 matches and assisted in more than 6,400 criminal investigations. In addition, the FBI has identified 610 offenders and another 193 "forensic hits" linking cases that had not previously been known to be related.

In testimony to Congress last week, Ashcroft said DNA analysis has identified numerous repeat offenders and been used in terrorism investigations such as the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the mailing of anthrax-laced letters in 2001.

The budget proposed by Bush for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 would provide $232.6 million for a range of DNA programs and grants to states, with the administration tentatively planning for a total commitment over $1 billion over the next five years.

The proposed spending would dwarf amounts Congress has been willing to approve so far, including $125 million that was authorized in 2000. Bills nearly quadrupling that amount have been introduced in the past but have not made it through both the House and Senate.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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