innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Theft Solved by DNA Analysis

This article appeared on USA Today's website on October 20, 2006:

Thefts Solved by DNA Analysis
Usage expands in non-violent crime

By Richard Willing

The national database of criminals' DNA, designed by the FBI to help solve rapes and murders, increasingly is being used to identify suspects in unsolved burglaries and other property crimes, a USA TODAY review of state crime lab records shows.

In 10 states — Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin — the total number of DNA matches in property-crime cases has exceeded the number of matches in violent crimes, the review indicates. Other states also are reporting increases in property-crime matches: Of Georgia's first 171 matches, only 13 involved DNA from the scenes of unsolved burglaries. Of the 300 matches that followed, 79 were in burglary cases.

Oregon state police DNA analyst Brian Ostrom says there are many reasons for the rise in property-crime matches. DNA testing has become more sophisticated, he says, allowing analysts to draw genetic profiles from evidence left at burglary scenes — palm prints, cigarette butts, sweat stains on gloves and masks — nearly as easily as they can get profiles from blood or semen at the scenes of violent crimes. And government grants for testing evidence, initially limited to violent crimes, now can be used to analyze DNA from property crimes.

Since 1990, the states, the federal government and the military have collected DNA from those convicted of felonies — serious crimes punishable by more than a year in prison — and stored the genetic profiles in computer databases. Several states collect DNA from those convicted of misdemeanors, such as minor assaults. With FBI software, the profiles are compared with DNA from crimes. The system was designed to “solve violent crimes,” its mission statement says.
The database contains DNA profiles from about 3.5 million people and has scored matches in about 38,000 cases, FBI scientist Thomas Callaghan says. The system adds about 25,000 profiles a month.

The FBI does not keep track of the types of crimes for which the system scores DNA matches, nor does it track how many matches produce arrests or convictions. USA TODAY compiled statistics on matches by reviewing records in the 20 states that account for about 85% of the system's matches.

Critics say using DNA to solve non-violent crimes could raise privacy concerns by dramatically expanding the database. Some question spending millions of dollars to probe such crimes. “For what it does in terms of cost, and in threats to civil liberties, (the database) has to justify itself much better,” University of Minnesota political science professor Jay Aronson says.

Backers of expanded DNA testing say burglars often go on to commit more serious crimes. In Alabama, about 80% of the rapes solved via DNA databasing in the past five years were linked to criminals whose DNA was taken after a burglary conviction, state forensic biology chief Angelo Della Manna says.