New York Police Expand DNA Testing
The burglary of Nick Haralampopoulos's house in Queens on Jan. 28 was just one of the 21,300 break-ins reported in New York City this year, and an unremarkable one at that: a kitchen window broken, a computer and some jewelry missing, and little hope of finding the person responsible.
But the Police Department crime lab responded with a strategy rarely used in burglary investigations: they sent a scarf left at the scene to be tested for DNA.
It was a bull's-eye. Not only did the DNA match that of Robert Medina, a 24-year-old with prior felony convictions, the police said, but it also matched DNA found at four other burglaries. Mr. Medina has since pleaded guilty in all five cases.
The investigation was among 250 cases, mostly burglaries in Queens, that were part of a trial expansion of DNA testing to crimes other than rape and homicide. Since it was started in January, the program, called Biotracks, has identified 23 suspects tied to 34 cases, most of which the police say would not otherwise have been solved.
In that small pool of results, the police see enormous potential to combat the city's most vexing crimes, the ones that leave victims feeling frustrated and vulnerable and the investigators searching, usually in vain, for witnesses or fingerprints. In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Police Department made arrests in just 15 percent of the city's burglaries.
The department hopes to expand DNA testing to burglaries, robberies and car thefts in all five boroughs, a goal that city officials say will be greatly advanced when the medical examiner's office opens a new $267 million DNA lab in 2006. "We're just beginning to learn how effective this is," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said. "We've had it in rape cases and homicide cases. Now you see the kind of natural expansion and progression of the program."
As little as 10 years ago, testing samples from thousands of crime scenes would have been unthinkably expensive. Yet DNA has long held out the promise of revolutionizing the way not just rapes and homicides but virtually all types of crimes are solved. A handful of cities and states have begun to test that promise, using technology that can glean DNA from ever smaller samples of biological material. In New York, Mr. Medina is among the first group ofsuspects identified by DNA in a nonviolent crime.
Trying to find DNA at every burglary scene is not extravagant, Commissioner Kelly said, because evidence shows that many burglars are "crossover" criminals who commit violent crimes like rape. They are also more likely than other criminals to strike repeatedly.
According to the National Institute of Justice, which paid for Biotracks with a grant of $175,000, the most active burglars each commit an average of more than 230 break-ins a year. Biotracks has identified several suspects with long police records, including one man with 29 prior arrests, 15 of them on burglary charges. Another suspect served time for a homicide in Georgia. One burglary was linked to a 1994 rape. Mr. Medina was previously convicted of two felony drug offenses and two misdemeanors.
The National Institute of Justice has made grants for DNA testing in property crimes to New York and to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties in Florida, said its director, Sarah V. Hart. The grants are part of President Bush's $5 billion initiative, which hopes to make DNA a routine law-enforcement tool across the country, she said. The agency has looked at countless ways to expand the use of DNA, even testing pets that criminals may have encountered at a crime scene, on the theory that pet hair is so hard to avoid that most criminals would carry some away with them when they left.
Ms. Hart compared the use of DNA in nonviolent crimes to the "broken windows" theory of policing: the idea that enforcing laws against low-level offenses like turnstile jumping and graffiti helps reduce the number of felonies. "We're very, very interested in trying to measure the success of this," she said.
The effectiveness of using DNA evidence in property crimes has been measured to some extent in Virginia, which has been doing such testing for more than 10 years. Dr. Paul Ferrara, the director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, said that in a study of the database's first 1,000 hits, there were 244 matches in sexual assault cases. Fifty-four of those suspects were in the database because of prior burglary convictions, compared to just 35 with prior drug convictions.
Dr. Ferrara said he could not provide a dollar amount for the added expense of testing at the scene of property crimes. But, he said, the cases are simpler and cheaper than violent crimes because they yield fewer samples to test, and the samples are not usually mixtures of DNA from two people. "Instead of 10, 20, 50 samples, you usually have this little speck of blood, or a little tissue from a window shard, and that's all," Dr. Ferrara said.
Of the 250 Biotracks cases, there were 366 samples taken from things like cigarette butts and hats left at the scene. One hundred and ten yielded profiles that met the requirements for the national DNA database maintained by the F.B.I. Of those, 34 matched known offenders. (Nationally, crime lab officials said, between 10 and 30 percent of DNA profiles generate a match, placing Biotracks on the high end.) At least eight suspects have been arrested solely because of Biotracks, and seven others were already in custody for other crimes, said Deputy Chief Denis M. McCarthy of the Forensic Investigation Division.
Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said biological evidence would be a significant help to prosecutors. Defendants would be more likely to plead guilty, which means less time and money spent on trials, he said. Besides Mr. Medina, Juan Romero, 50, has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced to seven years, and Giulio Lemorte, 34, has pleaded guilty to attempted burglary and will be sentenced to three years, said Patrick B. Clark, a spokesman for Mr. Brown. Gregory Lehman, a lawyer who represents Mr. Medina and other suspects in the Biotracks cases, declined to comment.
Mr. Brown said there was another reason such evidence was invaluable: it convinces skeptical juries. "Juries have come to expect to be provided with DNA evidence," he said.