WASHINGTON – Maryland officials said Tuesday that a proposal for more than $1.1 billion in federal funding to help clear backlogs of untested DNA evidence in state and local criminal cases could be a “tremendous boon” to the state.
Attorney General John Ashcroft outlined the plan to devote almost $233 million a year for five years for training, equipment and research in public DNA labs nationwide, an increase of more than $100 million a year over current funding.
The plan, which is part of the administration’s fiscal 2004 budget request, calls for elimination of the national backlog within five years, and would build up lab resources to avoid such pile-ups in the future.
The funding was welcomed by Maryland officials, who have a backlog of at least 5,000 “nonsuspect cases” in which there is a DNA sample but no suspect to match it to.
The plan is “fantastic,” said Thomas DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. “It’s really going to help us out.”
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy said the proposed funds “would be a tremendous boon,” especially in helping victims find closure.
The National Institute of Justice estimates that there are 350,000 rape and homicide cases with DNA samples waiting to be processed, and another 200,000 to 300,000 DNA samples, collected from convicts, waiting to be tested.
Baltimore City alone has 4,000 to 4,500 nonsuspect cases in which DNA has yet to be tested, said Mark Profili of the Baltimore City Police DNA crime lab.
Recent grants have allowed the city to send some of those cases to private labs, and Profili has said that his lab has kept up with cases where there is a suspect. But his laboratory still needs more staff and equipment to handle the flow of evidence.
“We are about a third of the way there in terms of what we need,” he said.
DNA evidence is especially important in cases without suspects. When that happens, investigators can enter the DNA evidence from a crime into a national database and try to get a “cold hit,” or a match.
That is how Baltimore City found James Felder, who pleaded guilty Friday to a 1997 rape. Police found Felder after a 2002 DNA sample, taken in connection with a robbery, matched the five-year old DNA evidence in the database.
Ashcroft said the administration’s proposal would allow more crimes to be solved “by eliminating the substantial backlog of DNA samples for the most serious violent offenses.”
While Baltimore has the biggest problem, other parts of the state also have a backlog. The state police crime lab estimates at least 5,000 backlogged nonsuspect cases throughout the state, including Baltimore, said Teresa Long, the lab’s forensic chemist manager.
Long’s lab analyzes nonsuspect cases when there is time, she said, but investigations with a suspect take priority, and her lab is understaffed.
Priority cases still take about a month, said Cpl. Rob Moroney, a spokesman for the state police, and a typical case takes two to three months.
The slowdown at the state lab affects counties, too. Prince George’s County sends most of its DNA samples to the state police for analysis, said Ramon V. Korionoff, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney.
“We certainly have lengthier processing times than we really would prefer to have,” Korionoff said. The proposed funds would “definitely make a difference,” he added.