03/12/2003

New Federal Plan for DNA Testing

By Eric Lichtblau, The New York Times

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration said today that it wanted to commit $1 billion to DNA testing in the next five years in a bid to stem a growing backlog of forensic evidence from crime scenes.

The plan, announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft, would also commit federal money for the first time for DNA testing of convicted felons who claim to be innocent, and it would expand the types of crimes included in a national DNA database.

"DNA evidence can breathe new life into long dormant investigations," Mr. Ashcroft said.

Advocates for crime victims said the plan could help to crack many old cases. But groups that have fought for DNA testing to clear convicted inmates said they were skeptical because they believed the plan gave the Justice Department too much power in determining which offenders should have access to testing.

The Justice Department wants to spend $232 million next fiscal year on DNA programs, an increase of 77 percent. That would be the first step in a five-year plan to increase funds by a total of $1 billion. The increase must be approved by Congress, which has been unwilling in recent years to make substantial new investments in DNA testing.

Scientists have made major strides in linking crime-scene evidence to the genetic codes of offenders, but the nation's police laboratories and law enforcement officials have often been unable to keep pace.

States have a backlog of 350,000 untested samples for rapes and homicides, Justice Department officials estimated, while another 200,000 to 300,000 samples taken from convicted offenders for possible matches have also gone untested.

The Bush administration has sought to tackle the problem before, with mixed results.

In August 2001, Mr. Ashcroft said he was committing another $30 million to DNA testing to ease the backlog, but the number of untested samples has only grown since then. Justice Department officials attributed this to the broader number of convicted offenders law enforcement officials are now testing.

Mr. Ashcroft called it "stunning" to learn that many sexual assaults produced DNA matches against people convicted in burglaries and other nonviolent crimes. That realization prompted some states to expand the universe of offenders required to give DNA samples, but it also raised the demands on laboratory resources, Mr. Ashcroft said.

The administration's plan would expand the number of federal crimes that require DNA collection, so that all people convicted of violence or terrorism would be included, officials said. The plan would also permit those states that require DNA to be collected from people arrested - and not only convicted - for certain crimes to include the results in the Justice Department's database.

John Walsh, the host of the "America's Most Wanted" television program and an advocate for crime victims, said he considered the administration proposal to be a major step toward solving many rapes, murders and violent crimes and reducing the backlog of untested evidence.

"Why can't we find the people that are hurting our loved ones?" asked Mr. Walsh, who appeared with Mr. Ashcroft at a news conference about the DNA initiative.

The plan also drew endorsements from Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican of Utah who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Kellie Greene, a spokeswoman for a rape victims' group. Ms. Greene was raped in Florida in 1994, but because of limitations in DNA testing, the police were unable to link the attack to a convicted felon until three years later.

Ms. Greene, also appearing at the news conference, said the plan "is going to prevent so many women from walking in the shoes that I had to walk in."

Advocates for convicted offenders have often chided law enforcement officials for failing to use DNA evidence to test the claims of those prisoners who say they are innocent, but the Justice Department plan includes $5 million to help states defray the costs of post-conviction testing. It is the first time such financing has been provided, officials said.

Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that uses DNA and other evidence to try to exonerate inmates it believes to have been wrongly convicted, said the plan gave the Justice Department and prosecutors too much authority to decide who should have access to DNA testing.

"We certainly welcome federal funding for post-conviction DNA testing, but the devil is in the details, and it's disappointing that the Justice Department didn't talk to those of us most involved in the process before drafting these provisions," he said.

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