Buchanan pushes for DNA changes

MANATEE — Violent federal inmates would have their DNA taken earlier in their prison terms if policy changes sought by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan are enacted in the wake of a series of violent attacks on women in Sarasota and Manatee counties last year.

Already, U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials say they are collecting new federal inmates’ DNA at the beginning of their sentences, based on Buchanan’s request. But there remains a backlog of 125,000 current inmates who have not had their DNA taken.

Buchanan has asked prison officials to ensure that the DNA of violent offenders who are part of the backlog is collected before that of inmates with nonviolent records.

“It just makes sense that the violent offenders go to the front of the list,” Buchanan said. “There are a lot of white-collar offenders, and we need to get their DNA, too. But we need to start with the killers, the rapists, the people who harm children.”

The congressman sought the changes after revelations that federal authorities had the DNA of accused serial home invader Delmer Smith III the entire time detectives say he beat and bound four women in their Sarasota homes, raping two. But the FBI had not entered his DNA into federal law enforcement databases.

Buchanan first met with FBI officials last fall to discuss what it would take to eliminate the backlog. But eliminating the DNA backlog at the FBI is still a work in progress. FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd said it actually has risen from 295,000 samples in October to 297,000 at last count in November, because of a shortage of scientists.

More scientists are being brought in with hopes of eliminating the backlog within a year, according to Todd.

Buchanan said the public’s safety depends on it.

“I want to see it go down,” Buchanan said. “We are going to aggressively monitor progress to make sure that it does.”

Smith, a former federal inmate, is also a suspect in as many as seven other similar attacks in Manatee and Sarasota counties, including the beating death of a woman in her Sarasota home April 5. He also has not been ruled out as a suspect in the August killing of Kathleen Briles in the Terra Ceia home she shared with her husband, well-known Palmetto Dr. James Briles.

Buchanan said prison officials are reviewing his request to prioritize the inmates who are part of the backlog based on the nature of their offenses. Prison officials have said that, with more than 200,000 inmates in federal prison, the collection of DNA from inmates closer to being released has taken priority.

“I am very confident that the bureau is seriously considering moving violent offenders to the top of the list for having their DNA taken,” Buchanan said. “We have to get an offender’s DNA as early on as possible to make sure there is time to get it in the database before they get out.”

That did not happen in Smith’s case, and the consensus among local law enforcement in Sarasota and Manatee counties is that had Smith’s DNA been entered into federal databases, several woman might not have been attacked.

Prior to his September 2008 release, Smith had spent 15 years in federal prison for a bank robbery, but the prison system did not send a sample of his DNA to the FBI for entry until March 2008. It quickly got swallowed into another federal backlog on the processing side within the FBI.

As early as February 2009, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office detectives had a DNA sample from a home invasion attack during which a woman was beaten and bound. But detectives did not get a hit when checking databases, and similar attacks went on for months until police arrested Smith after a Venice bar fight.

Investigators began looking deeper into Smith after finding out he was on federal probation at the time of the fight. A search of his home and a storage unit revealed items stolen in several of the attacks.

Detectives requested the FBI pull Smith’s DNA from the backlog — 295,000 samples at that time — and enter it into law enforcement databases. Once completed, investigators then resubmitted DNA samples taken from four home invasion crime scenes and they matched Smith’s sample taken in prison.

“I think it is safe to say that, if we had all the information entered, he would not have committed many of these crimes,” Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said. “I am for anything that is going to get this DNA in the system as quickly as possible.”