massive DNA database helps ID suspects
By John Solomon, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The FBI's DNA database, filled with genetic samples from
prison inmates nationwide, has helped local authorities identify
suspects in more than 11,000 cases in what is becoming the 21st
century equivalent of fingerprinting.
The database, known as the Combined DNA Indexing
System or CODIS, has helped solve two "cold" murder cases in Kansas,
identify the two-decade old remains of a missing California child and
capture a sexual predator who terrorized young boys in Houston.
Just as important, police and lawyers say, it has
freed prisoners wrongly convicted of crimes and helped detectives
quickly eliminate wrong suspects, saving manpower chasing false leads.
"This basically is the fingerprint technology of
this century," said Joseph M. Polisar, the police chief of Garden Grove,
Calif., and the president of the International Association of Chiefs of
Police. "The potential for us in the criminal justice field to solve
crimes with this technology is boundless."
As a side benefit, the sharing of genetic
fingerprints also has helped the FBI improve relations with local law
enforcement, which for years was frustrated by problems with information
sharing, Polisar said.
The FBI says more than 8,000 samples of genetic
evidence from unsolved cases have been matched to past or current
convicts in the database, helping to solve crimes. An additional 3,000
samples have been matched to unidentified suspects in other cases that
remain unsolved, creating links between cases.
The FBI lab was struck by controversy over shoddy
work and exaggerated or false testimony by its scientists in the 1990s,
but its current director, Dwight Adams, has addressed those issues and
made a priority of expanding the DNA database.
A DNA scientist by trade, Adams acted to insulate
the DNA database from legal or scientific attack. His lab created a
sophisticated identification system to safeguard the privacy of samples
and ensure matches are double-checked before suspects are arrested.
"The process doesn't stop just because you make a
match to an individual in the database," Adams explained in an
interview. "The next stop in the process is for the law enforcement
agency to obtain a warrant, get a blood sample from the same individual
and do the same testing to ensure there is a match."
CODIS has gathered genetic samples from more than
1.6 million criminals, most taken after they entered prison. The
database also includes more than 80,000 DNA samples gathered from
unsolved crime scenes. Each month, between 10,000 and 40,000 new samples
are added by local authorities.
The database started in the early 1990s as a
trial and was expanded to 50 states in the late 1990s. Now, at least 170
local crime labs across the country can run DNA samples through the
database and find matches.
One of the database's more dramatic successes
occurred in Houston last November when the FBI matched DNA evidence to
help capture a bike-riding sexual predator who assaulted young boys at
The case had stumped authorities for months,
forced many parents to keep their children inside before the database
was used to match DNA from a victim to a known sexual offender in CODIS.
• In Wichita, police were able to crack two old
murder cases by finding DNA matches to prisoners. One was charged for
the 1995 murder of an elderly woman; the other was charged in a fatal
• Authorities in Massachusetts were able to
charge a convicted murderer last summer in the 1998 death of an elderly
Foxboro woman who was stabbed 29 times.
• Police in California cracked the case last year
of 16-year-old boy who disappeared in 1982. A man pleaded guilty to
manslaughter after the FBI was able to extract DNA from headless
skeletal remains and matched it to the missing boy's mother, confirming
CODIS also can affect the wrongly convicted.
Lawyer Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project have used DNA to help free
more than 100 prisoners.
Defense lawyers, though concerned about some
privacy issues, applaud the FBI's efforts and say they want the lab to
make DNA science irrefutable, increasing the current 13 markers used for
"Any mechanism which increases communication and
cooperation between law enforcement agencies is a good idea. What we
especially value or encourage ... is an increased reliance on scientific
evidence over more traditional and less reliable forms of proof," said
Steve Benjamin, a Virginia lawyer who co-chairs the National Association
of Criminal Defense Lawyers' committee on forensic evidence.
When Adams joined the team of six FBI analysts
and technicians that started the FBI's DNA section in 1988, it took six
weeks to get police test results. Today, there are 100 scientists on the
FBI's DNA team and technology has shortened testing to as little as 24
"If we can get this down to a few hours or less,
we will improve all the more because there are still more cases and more
samples that can be worked," said Adams, the first FBI scientist to
testify about DNA in court.