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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Va. Databank Doesn't List all State's Felons

This article appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 19, 2006:

Va. Databank Doesn't List All State's Felons

By Carlos Santos
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Though Virginia's felons are required to provide DNA samples, authorities believe thousands may have eluded the process, blunting the effectiveness of one of the state's best crime-fighting tools.

Charlottesville police Capt. J.E. "Chip" Harding said he was tipped off to the problem when he noticed that several suspects in a serial rapist investigation -- all felons -- weren't in the state's huge DNA database.

"I began to wonder just how many more were missing," said Harding, who started talking to state and local officials about the problem. "Now I think there's probably thousands."

The Charlottesville area has its share. This summer, the adult probation office that covers the city and Albemarle County compared its list of 600 supervised felons to the DNA databank, Harding said. A total of 125 felons were not listed in the databank.

Charlottesville and Albemarle authorities plan to bring the felons in next month to take DNA samples.

How the felons avoided giving samples is unclear, Harding said.

"But I don't suspect this is a Charlottesville-area problem," he said. "I think there's probably thousands of cases out there where felons . . . should be in the database and aren't.

"I'm not saying I know the scope of the problem. It could be 20 percent or could be far less, but we need to find out," Harding said. With the help of crime victims, he successfully lobbied in 1997 to fully fund the DNA databank, which then had a large backlog of samples to be processed.

Police use the databank -- which has about 260,000 samples -- as an investigative tool. Genetic evidence from a crime scene is compared to DNA samples in the databank. If there is a match -- known as a cold hit -- authorities can use the lead to help solve murders, rapes and other crimes.

Paul Ferrara, the head of the state's Department of Forensic Science, said there have been about 3,600 cold hits since the databank was started in 1989.

Ferrara also believes there is a problem with obtaining DNA samples from felons.
"I'm sure there are some who slip through the cracks," he said.

In many cases, local jurisdictions -- either at jails or at probation offices -- take DNA samples.
"We've done extensive training of jail and prison officials," Ferrara said. "But it's hard to know how effective they are in taking samples."

Until 2001, blood samples were taken for DNA. Since then, a simpler method involving the swabbing of the inside of the cheek has been used. Harding said the complication of taking blood samples -- requiring a trained technician -- may have led to some compliance problems. He also believes the problem may be greatest with felons who are not sentenced to jail or prison time -- a common occurrence with first-time, nonviolent offenders.

"I think in some cases, people are assuming somebody else is getting it done," he said. "There is no one agency overseeing all this."

Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said all inmates coming into the prison system are checked to see if they are registered in the database.

Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, sponsored recent legislation that helped tighten DNA compliance by offenders listed in the state's sex-offender registry. Comparison of the registry to the DNA databank several years ago showed that about 20 percent of the sex offenders who should have been in the databank were not.

Bell said he is aware of the current questions about DNA compliance by felons.
"I think it's a question of getting all the different gears working," Bell said. "We may need to make it a uniform process."

Harding wonders if the serial rapist who has plagued the Charlottesville area is a felon who has eluded the databank. The rapist, linked to seven sexual attacks since 1997, last struck in 2004.
"Does he already have a conviction for a sex offense and has continued to attack because of a system breakdown?" Harding asked. "We need to find out."

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