DNA Backlog Means It's No Magic Bullet

DNA over US Flag with hands in cuffs
Debbie Smith's nightmares began in 1989 after a man dragged her from her Williamsburg, Va., house and raped her. He threatened to return, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports.

"The whole time he had me, he continually said to me, remember I know where you live, and if you tell anyone, I'm going to come back and I'm going to kill you," Smith said.

Smith lived in constant fear, contemplating suicide … until 1995 when a prosecutor called. A DNA match had finally revealed her attacker was in jail - and had been for six years.

"I would have killed myself for nothing. Six months after I, six months after he attacked me, he was picked up for another crime," Smith said. "But, I had no way of knowing that - until that DNA match was made."

When used in a timely manner, DNA provides more than peace of mind. It is a powerful tool for prosecuting violent crimes, rapes and murders.

And DNA has already helped solve more than 65,000 cold cases.

But, DNA is not a magic bullet - as it's portrayed on television.

The weak link: The network of labs charged with collecting and testing DNA is overwhelmed. Three-hundred thousand evidence samples are backlogged on shelves - still waiting to be processed.

"People are being victimized, raped and murdered because of that backlog," said DNA expert Chris Asplen, a former federal prosecutor.

"Because we are not testing DNA samples, we are not putting profiles in the database. So we are not taking people off the street who are committing those rapes and murders," Asplen said.

Take the case of Raymont Hopewell. When he was convicted on drug charges in 2004, Maryland police never even collected a DNA sample - and had no way of knowing he'd raped and murdered two women.

So, Hopewell, released after a six month jail term, went on to murder three more people.

It's that fear of not stopping repeat violent offenders...that now has the FBI lab working overtime to clear its own 2-year inventory of untested DNA files - blood taken from 180,000 convicted offenders.

"We don't want to have a backlog at all, we want these samples to come in, we want to run them, we want to get them in the database so they can start being compared to forensic cases," said Robert Fram, section chief of the FBI lab.

And they're counting on technology to catch up. Robots will soon be processing 30,000 DNA samples a month - far more than the 400-a-month technicians used to do by hand.

"We know every case impacts family and people's lives - and that's why we're doing everything we possibly can to get those samples into that database," Fram said.

Read more about the story at Couric & Co.
To reduce their backlog, state crime labs around the country need two things: money and resources like staffing. The federal government has helped, with hundreds of millions of dollars given out as grants in the past few years.

The grants, named for Debbie Smith, are set to expire in the next year. Congress is currently negotiating an extension that Smith and her husband, have been working hard for.

If Congress comes through, the Debbie Smith Act could soon be reauthorized, providing hundreds of millions of dollars of additional federal assistance to state crime labs.

Still these days, for Smith, who is now a crime victim's advocate, any backlog is too much for those awaiting justice.

"Its very difficult to look at them and say, you just have to wait, just hold on one more day," Smith said.

Hold on ... until DNA is the crime-fighting weapon it's meant to be.