MANATEE — Even as the U.S. House of Representatives just approved a bill that offers funding for local law enforcement agencies to collect DNA upon arrest for a wider range of crimes, federal authorities are still struggling with the existing backlog of inmates’ DNA samples that haven’t been entered into federal databases.
Locally, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office already collects DNA samples after felony convictions, but the new bill would provide funding to take samples of those arrested on charges of murder, manslaughter, sex crimes, kidnapping, burglary and aggravated assault.
“This is a common-sense bill that will help keep our communities safe,” U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said in a statement released after the bill passed Tuesday.
After voting for the bill, which also encourages all local law enforcement agencies to implement DNA collection programs, Buchanan cited the FBI’s lapse in entering a DNA sample of former federal convict Delmer Smith III prior to his release from prison in September 2008.
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Prosecutors say Smith went on to commit a series of attacks on women in their homes in Sarasota and Manatee counties between February and August 2009, including beating Kathleen Briles to death in her Terra Ceia home. Smith’s arrest came after months of investigation in which detectives began to believe many of the attacks were being committed by the same man. In at least two of the attacks, DNA found at the crime scene proved to be from the same person. But detectives did not receive a match in federal law enforcement databases.
H.R. Bill 4614 is named after Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old from Carlsbad, N.M. who was raped and murdered in 2003 in Las Cruces, N.M. Although authorities had her killer’s DNA from under her fingernails, he stayed on the streets for three years because New Mexico didn’t require DNA samples at the time, according to published reports. In January 2006, the New Mexico Legislature passed Katie’s Law,” requiring DNA for most felony arrests to be included in a database.
The House bill would make “Katie’s Law” the national standard. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, also voted for the bill, which was overwhelmingly approved 357-32. It now goes to the Senate, where no companion bill yet exists.
In the Smith case, the break came when authorities arrested him after an Aug. 14 bar fight in Sarasota, in which police say he beat a man.
Detectives discovered upon that arrest that Smith was on federal probation and began searching his possessions. They searched a storage bin under his control and found electronics stolen from four attacks in Sarasota, as well as items taken from the Briles home.
Upon learning Smith had been in federal prison for bank robbery, Sarasota detectives learned the FBI had his DNA sample from prison all along, but had not yet entered it into federal law enforcement databases upon his release due to the backlog.
FBI officials then fast-tracked Smith’s prison DNA sample into law enforcement databases, and DNA from four attacks in Sarasota matched that sample.
At the time of Smith’s arrest, the FBI reported a backlog of 295,000 DNA samples from federal inmates not yet entered into law enforcement databases.
On Wednesday, Buchanan made reference to the existing backlog at the FBI’s laboratory in relation to Smith’s case. “Authorities have said that if Smith’s DNA had been in the database, they might have apprehended him sooner and prevented several violent crimes,” Buchanan stated.
In recent months, FBI officials have told Buchanan that the backlog would be eliminated within a year, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has been looking at the possibility of enacting a policy of taking inmates’ DNA at the beginning of their sentences. In Smith’s case, he was in prison for 15 years but prison officials did not take his DNA sample until months prior to his release.
Prisons officials on Wednesday pledged progress in eliminating the backlog, but did not provide details on possible policy changes.
“We are poised to pilot new procedures for collecting DNA from inmates; the test procedures are designed to streamline the process and thereby enable us to begin to effectively clear the backlog,” U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross stated in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald.