DNA backlog revelation sparks inquiries

Herald Staff WritersOctober 8, 2009 

MANATEE — The revelation that federal authorities had the DNA of home invasion and rape suspect Delmer Smith III, but hadn’t logged it in FBI databases drew calls for action Wednesday from local politicians and law enforcement.

Officials with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan’s office said he has started an investigation into the handling of Smith’s DNA, including contacting the FBI and local law enforcement.

And Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said he believes Smith would have been caught earlier if not for the backlog in processing DNA evidence.

FBI officials acknowledged Tuesday to the Bradenton Herald that they had Smith’s DNA taken while he was in federal prison for bank robbery, but it was not entered into DNA databases because it was part of a 250,000-sample backlog.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office investigators found DNA at four crimes scenes in which women were attacked in their homes, including two rapes, starting in early February. But detectives did not get a hit on Smith because it wasn’t in the FBI databases.

It was only when police began investigating Smith after a bar fight in August that they found property stolen from the homes where women had been attacked. Detectives learned Smith was a former federal prison inmate and asked FBI agents to see if they had his DNA.

FBI officials found Smith’s DNA, received in March 2008, and fast-tracked its entry into the federal database, circumventing the backlog. The DNA from the crime scenes matched Smith’s sample taken in prison, according to reports.

The link came seven months after the first DNA sample was found at a crime scene — a time span during which Smith may have attacked as many as 11 women and one man in their homes in Manatee and Sarasota counties, investigators believe.

Knight said he appreciates the fact that the FBI has been forthcoming about the backlog and efforts to eliminate it.

“I am certainly not going to point any fingers,” Knight said. “There is a problem here, but it is not the FBI’s fault. They are working with the resources they have.

“All of us in law enforcement want these samples entered,” he added, “and the hope is the government will have the will to provide the funding to get that done.”

Buchanan’s spokeswoman Sally Tibbitts said the congressman will not make a public comment until his investigation into the matter is complete.

“We are in the fact-finding mode right now,” she said. “We are looking for answers to ensure this is corrected so there are no more victims and no more loss of life because of this problem.”

FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd wrote in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald that extensive efforts are being made to eliminate the backlog, but it is going to take time. An automated computer system has been implemented that is increasing entries of samples into the National DNA Index System by 30,000 a month, according to Todd.

“It’s important that all authorized DNA profiles are entered into NDIS. As you can see from the proactive measures, implemented by the FBI Laboratory, we are committed to entering the profiles of federal offenders in a timely manner,” Todd wrote.

As of this past August, NDIS contained more than 7.3 million offender profiles — including more than 470,000 from Florida — and information on more than 280,000 pieces of evidence. The database has produced more than 95,500 hits assisting in more than 94,000 investigations, according to the FBI.

In Florida, the entry of criminal offenders’ DNA into state and federal databases is going much smoother, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials. But it took time and money to get it that way.

Breaking the logjam

The Justice Department launched a DNA backlog-reduction program in 2000. Four years later, it expanded the program by launching a five-year, $1 billion initiative to enhance DNA collection and testing and further reduce the backlog at the state and federal levels. The program was reauthorized last year, and plans are to spend another $755 million over five years.

The program was a success, at least initially, according to a March 2009 report by the department’s inspector general.

The backlog fell by as much as 43 percent in 39 states — not including Florida, which did not participate in the program — from 2005 to 2007, the report said. Those states had analyzed 971,764 samples through the program as of June 30, 2008.

But the report also highlighted the time lag in getting those results into the main FBI database. Just 617,550, or 63.5 percent, had been uploaded into the system by that date, the report said.

The delay allowed additional crimes to be committed: One in six state labs reported they had cases where an offender committed another crime while his or her DNA sample was backlogged, the report said.

And the report warned the backlog likely will worsen as more states require DNA samples from more criminal suspects.

Florida requires those convicted of a felony or attempted felony, a gang-related offense or certain misdemeanors — stalking, voyeurism, obscenity, exposing a minor to harmful materials, computer pornography, and watching and/or videotaping people in dressing rooms — to submit DNA samples.

That was expanded this year to include all sex offenders and predators, regardless of when they were convicted, and certain misdemeanors.

The law also will require DNA samples from anyone arrested for murder, assault and battery, sexual battery or lewd and lascivious offenses on or after Jan. 1, 2011, subject to sufficient state funding to collect and process those samples. That would gradually be expanded to include all felony arrests after Jan. 1, 2019.

The FDLE database had a backlog in 2007 that has since been eliminated, according to DNA database director Chris Carney. The lab gets 8,000 samples a month for entry into the database, he said.

In Manatee, samples are taken either at the courthouse or at the Manatee County jail after someone is convicted of a felony, according to Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for getting the samples to FDLE, a process that is done once a week.

“When the laws changed and we were getting samples from all felonies, it took a while to catch up,” Carney said. “It was a lot of personnel hours, and a lot of overtime.”

Kellie Greene, director of Orlando-based Speaking Out Against Rape Inc., or SOAR, an advocacy group for rape survivors, said backlogs in the testing of DNA evidence represent a threat to the public’s safety because they allow serial criminals to add to their list of victims.

“When it comes to where you have to expedite the testing, someone’s life has been affected, and it’s too late,” she said.

— Herald Metro Editor Marc R. Masferrer contributed to this report.

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