SARASOTA — The FBI must develop procedures to update its DNA databases to ensure information about violent criminals, like ex-convict Delmer Smith III, is available to local law enforcement, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan said Friday.
Flanked by sheriffs Brad Steube of Manatee and Tom Knight of Sarasota, Buchanan used a news conference to call for the FBI to set up a priority system so that identifying DNA information from violent offenders moves to the top of the pile when it is being entered into databases.
The Sarasota Republican said he emphasized that point in a meeting with FBI officials Thursday and said he is considering introducing legislation to address the problem.
Smith, a convicted bank robber who was released from federal prison in September 2008, has been charged with four home invasions and assaults in Sarasota County earlier this year, and he is a suspect in several other attacks in Manatee and Sarasota.
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The FBI had Smith’s DNA since March 2008 after receiving it from the federal Bureau of Prisons. But the FBI did not enter it into its databases until last month when local officials made a request after Smith emerged as a possible suspect. Only then did Sarasota investigators learn that it matched DNA recovered from the scenes of four vicious home invasion attacks.
The lag in entering Smith’s DNA into the system is being blamed on a backlog of some 295,000 cases. Still, the profiles of more than 7.3 million people, including almost 618,000 from Florida, are included in the database.
“My sense is they are putting a lot of people through the process, but we’ve got to make sure our sheriffs have the tools they need for public safety,” Buchanan said. “Because maybe in the future, something like this can be avoided, possibly, if they have access to those tools early.”
The first attack that Sarasota investigators have linked to Smith happened Feb. 22, and subsequent assaults in which he is charged occurred March 7, March 14 and May 26. According to reports, detectives determined Smith’s DNA was found at each of the scenes — but only after the FBI was asked to expedite the processing of the sample taken while Smith was in prison.
Buchanan declined to speculate on whether some of the crimes Smith is suspected of committing might have been prevented if his DNA had been entered into the FBI database sooner.
In an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald, FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd said the bureau does not currently receive information about an offender’s criminal history as part of the sample submission process.
“With the exception of expedite requests, the prioritization of sample processing is based upon when the sample was accepted by the laboratory, with the oldest samples typically processed first,” Todd said.
A noted forensic DNA expert said a priority system might be helpful.
“It certainly sounds like it’s the right approach. The people who keep committing the most serious crimes ought to be the first off the streets,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the sciences department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Kobilinsky, however, cautioned that a priority system might actually slow the database process because, for example, of the time it would take to determine whether a particular criminal’s DNA should be entered before someone else’s.
Buchanan said he thinks the FBI is receiving sufficient funding for its database, some $156 million this year, and he said he was told that new employees are currently receiving training that should help the bureau reduce the backlog within six to nine months.
Todd said the FBI lab’s Federal DNA Database Unit has a staffing level of 37 positions, with 23 presently on board, 13 receiving training and one vacancy.
The additional staffing and advancements in robotic technology mean the FBI eventually will be able to process and enter into the database 120,000 DNA samples a month, said Todd, but she said the FBI could not provide an estimate of when the backlog might be eliminated.
“The proactive measures implemented by the FBI Laboratory clearly demonstrate our commitment to entering the profiles of federal offenders in a timely manner,” she said.
Buchanan stressed that information about the most violent criminals be available on the DNA database as soon as possible in case law enforcement needs to compare it with evidence from a new crime scene.
“I’m arguing that if you can’t keep it current, I want to make sure the baddest of the bad end up there on Day 1,” Buchanan said.
Smith is considered the prime suspect in two home invasions being investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, on March 13 in northwest Bradenton and on March 31 in East Manatee. DNA was not recovered in either case, however.
But Steube said the FBI’s backlog leaves local enforcement hamstrung when DNA evidence might be pivotal in an investigation.
“I hate to criticize any other agency, but the bottom line for me is that we’d like everything to be available when we’re conducting an investigation,” Steube said. “Our primary function is to capture the bad guys, and if that is one of the things we need to use, we’d like that to happen as quickly as possible.”
Smith has been held in the Pinellas County jail since Sept. 11 after he was arrested for violating his federal probation. Smith originally had been arrested after a bar fight in Venice on Aug. 14, and during a search of his belongings, police found a handgun and items that had been stolen during some of the home invasions, according to reports.
A Sarasota sheriff’s spokeswoman said local officials were waiting for the state attorney’s office and the U.S. Marshals Service to arrange for his transfer to Sarasota.