Feds welcome expanded DNA tests

| Monday, Feb. 26, 2007

Long before he was accused of being the East End Rapist, Keith Wood was busy building a rap sheet in Allegheny County courts as a petty criminal.

The first of his 11 arrests came in November 1988, for trespassing. This month, he was charged with one of seven sexual assaults in Pittsburgh's East End and nearby suburbs that police say were committed by the same assailant between 1988 and 2001.

If investigators' suspicions about Wood are correct, a DNA test during his first arrest might have stopped the attacks early on, said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.

"A countless number of rapes could have been prevented," said Buchanan, who also serves as the acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women.

Instead of waiting until after a conviction, which is required in Pennsylvania and most other states, the U.S. government soon will begin collecting DNA samples from all people arrested on federal charges, including illegal immigrants. The change was mandated by the 2005 Violence Against Women Act, signed into law by President Bush last year.

Though Wood's DNA would not be collected under the new plan, Buchanan said he is an example of how future crimes could be solved faster by expanding the number of DNA profiles in the national database.

The FBI lab began limited DNA casework in 1988. It began testing DNA samples from all federal convicted felons in 2001.

Pennsylvania began collecting DNA on a limited basis in 1995, before expanding the program in 2003 to collect it from some convicts. The state began collecting DNA samples from all convicted felons in 2005 -- the year Wood's DNA sample was taken while he was in prison.

"This is an approach that would bring DNA collection in line with fingerprinting standards," said Erik Ablin, a Justice Department spokesman. "We view this as a crime-fighting and crime-solving tool that simply collects biometric identification from people who would already be fingerprinted."

States share forensic profiles through a national database called CODIS, or the Combined DNA Indexing System. The system has more than 4 million profiles submitted by federal, state and local laboratories. Officials said it has produced tips to police in 43,000 investigations.

The cost of collecting, analyzing and storing each DNA sample has dropped from thousands of dollars to about $37.50 for the FBI, said Special Agent Ann Todd. But adding more DNA samples to the databases could strain the system and cost money.

The FBI has a backlog of 125,000 samples waiting to be processed, and the Justice Department predicts the new law will increase the number of samples submitted each year from 100,000 to 1.3 million.

Todd said the FBI lab has requested 36 employees to handle the increased volume. The Justice Department's requested budget for 2008 includes $14.6 million to address the backlog of unprocessed DNA samples and $7 million for the national database.

David Lazer, a public policy professor at Harvard University, said collecting DNA from more people should statistically increase the probability of solving crimes. But flooding a strained system could be a problem, he said.

"There is mounting evidence that matches (from the DNA database) aren't being followed up on," Lazer said. "If our existing hits aren't being followed up on, there's a question of how much help is it going to be to a machine that creates more hits."

Buchanan said expanding the number of DNA profiles in the database can only help solve crimes such as murder, child exploitation and rape.

"The collection of DNA samples from a wider field of individuals will help solve many open investigations and may help additional crimes from being committed by serial offenders," she said. "Plus, the collection of DNA samples can be as important to conviction as it is to exonerating those who are improperly charged or convicted."

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