12/14/2003

Lack of DNA Cases in Tenn. Upsets Victims Advocates, Puzzles Officials

The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- A year after receiving $3.4 million from the federal government to help solve criminal cases by using DNA, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has received only 110 samples from police departments.

Last year, the TBI said evidence from 2,500 crimes, primarily sexual assaults, was languishing in the departments. Now, a Dec. 31 deadline for receiving samples looms with only a fraction of the perceived caseload submitted.

It's not clear if some police departments throughout the state are not submitting evidence or if the TBI overestimated the need for help. Either way, the TBI and law enforcement agencies are not doing all they can to solve crimes, the leader of a crime victims advocacy group says.

"When law enforcement is handed resource money to get more convictions and they don't go after those convictions, they are failing to do their job, they are failing the people of Tennessee and they are failing the public trust, in my opinion," Helen Hawk Shelton, acting chairwoman of the Tennessee Victims' Coalition, told The Tennessean newspaper. "Had we sent out all 2,500 (cases), how many violent offenders would be behind bars and how many victims would have been saved? That's what we really need to ask."

David Jennings, TBI's acting director since Nov. 30, said the agency has done all it can to urge law enforcement agencies to send in their evidence.

"We've done everything I know to do except send somebody to every agency across the state," he said.

Cases eligible for the federal funding are "no suspect" cases, which often have little hope of being solved. The plan is to develop a genetic fingerprint from the evidence and match the suspect to a person on the FBI's DNA database of convicted felons.

Matches have resulted in arrests across the country, but many of the cases are difficult to prosecute because they are old. That could account for why many of the 2,500 cases estimated by the TBI to be backlogged have yet to appear.

Last year, Nashville's police department had about 300 rape kits containing evidence for sexual assault cases that were never analyzed for DNA. But the department isn't sending any of the evidence to the TBI because the commander of the sex crimes unit believes the older cases can't be prosecuted.

"I assure you that when investigation dictates the (rape) kit needs to go (to the TBI lab for testing), it goes," Lt. Rob White said. "You will find that for the kits that haven't been tested, there is a reason for not testing it."

The Knoxville Police Department, which sent about 35 cases to the TBI last week, is only sending material from crimes deemed prosecutable, an official said.

"We want to make sure we're sending viable cases," Deputy Police Chief Bill Roehl said.

TBI called rape and crisis centers and several of the state's police departments to form its estimate, Jennings said. With more than 400 law enforcement agencies in the state, that guess did not seem unreasonable, Jennings said, since it would mean an average of about six cases each.

The governor's office should investigate the discrepancy between the number of cases identified by the TBI as needing DNA testing and the relatively low number of cases submitted by police, Shelton said.

A letter sent Dec. 2 by the TBI and obtained by The Tennessean under state public records law stated that agencies have until Dec. 31 to submit evidence for testing. The evidence must come from crimes that occurred before 2003 in which there are no suspects, it stated.

Jennings said he did not know why a Dec. 31 deadline was set, and said it could be extended.

"If all we've got is 110 (cases), I have no problem extending the deadline," he said. "I would certainly extend that date if an agency has kits that need to be processed."

TBI's letter also indicated it might divert the $3.4 million to other areas if it isn't spent on the DNA cases. Jennings said that's not accurate. The money would instead go to another state that has a backlog of cases.

Tennessee can spend the money until Aug. 31, a Department of Justice spokeswoman said Friday.

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