MANATEE — Another federal agency has been brought into Congressman Vern Buchanan’s investigation into fixing the gaps in the federal database entry of offenders' DNA that prevented local authorities from getting a DNA match on accused serial home invader and rapist Delmer Smith III.
Smith is accused of committing a series of violent home invasions in Sarasota in which women were beaten and raped in their homes. He is also a suspect in seven other similar attacks in Manatee and Sarasota, including the beating death of a Sarasota woman in her home.
On Thursday, Buchanan, R-Sarasota, met FBI officials in order to search for answers in eliminating a DNA backlog of more than 290,000 samples of federal convicts that have not been entered into the system.
Smith’s DNA was among that backlog throughout the four months Sarasota authorities say the ex-federal prisoner committed the series of home invasion attacks. Sarasota County Sheriff’s detectives had DNA from four home invasions but obtained no match from federal databases.
It was only after a bar fight that resulted in Smith’s arrest, that his federal record became apparent. Local authorities asked for entry of his DNA into the federal system after finding property stolen from several of the home invasions.
FBI officials who met with Buchanan pledged that the backlog will be eliminated between nine months and a year, saying the congressman’s idea of prioritizing violent offender’s DNA first would not be needed.
“Basically they said in the time it would take to look at each sample to determine that, the backlog would already be eliminated,” Buchanan said.
The meeting with the FBI about the backlog also led Buchanan to seek a meeting next week with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the agency he says handles the collection of DNA from federal prisoners.
Buchanan said the head of the FBI’s DNA laboratory, Dr. Christian Hassell, said the federal prison system does not have a requirement for when DNA should be taken from offenders during their sentence, only that it is done before they are released.
In Smith’s case, he went to federal prison for an armed bank robbery in 1995, but his DNA was not turned over to the FBI until March 2008, five months before his September release.
Buchanan said setting policy mandating federal prison officials take DNA samples at the beginning of an offender’s sentence may be the next step to preventing DNA backlogs in the future, and may solve local crimes earlier. FBI officials did not return a late request for comment on this story.
“It will not only give the FBI more time to have DNA in the database before someone gets out, but the quicker DNA is in the system, the quicker an offender can be connected to any other criminal activity around the country,” Buchanan said.
U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the agency continues to ensure that DNA is taken from all offenders before their release, but said there is no policy as to when the DNA is taken during an inmate’s sentence.
In 2000, when federal legislation was enacted mandating the collection of DNA from all federal inmates, the decision was made to prioritize the taking of DNA from inmates that are closest to getting out of prison.
“We have more than 200,000 inmates so we began to prioritize by getting the people closest to getting out first, then working our way back,” she said.
Billingsley also said new laws requiring arresting agencies and local courts to take DNA upon arrest and conviction will eventually take the responsibility of collecting DNA away from the federal prison system in coming years.
“Federal prison is never a person’s first stop. But we will always continue to verify that an offender’s DNA has been taken,” she said.
In the meantime, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube applauded the idea of getting offender’s DNA into the system as quickly as possible, as he says his agency does for felony state convictions here.
“It makes sense to get it in right away and send it off to get it in the database,” said Steube. “The bottom line is it doesn’t matter to me if they take it at the beginning or end, it just needs to be in the database before an offender gets out, so something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight also agreed with the taking of DNA early on in a prisoner’s sentence.
“I am encouraged that the FBI agrees DNA samples should be collected at the start of an offender’s federal prison sentence,” Knight stated in an email to the Bradenton Herald.