Washington With hundreds of thousands of unanalyzed DNA samples sitting in state crime labs, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Wednesday states would receive federal dollars to deal with the genetic evidence that could help solve crimes or clear the innocent.
The Justice Department will provide more than $30 million over the next 18 months for crime labs to analyze DNA collected from criminals and from crime scenes that, in some states, has been left undocumented in storage lockers for months or weeks after it has been gathered.
A law signed last December authorized the department to provide the money.
New testing technology and highly reliable results have made DNA samples a powerful law enforcement tool, driving states to pass laws requiring accused or convicted rapists, murderers and even robbers to submit DNA samples.
The samples can help solve cases that have languished for years. Just this week, police in Florida said DNA evidence linked a man to an attack on a tourist who was raped and left for dead two decades ago. New testing technology led to a match between semen from the attack and the man's DNA, which had been kept in a state database of convicted criminals.
But labs are overloaded with samples; an estimated 1 million DNA samples collected from criminals have never been analyzed.
Ashcroft said more than 180,000 kits with DNA samples collected from rape cases across the country have never been analyzed.
"DNA technology can operate as a kind of truth machine, ensuring justice by identifying the guilty and clearing the innocent," said Ashcroft at a news conference. "Backlogs of unanalyzed DNA samples and unacceptable delays in analysis of crime scene DNA evidence are preventing the full utilization of this remarkable technology is solving crimes and promoting justice."
The grants will pay for 500,000 samples to be analyzed, Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft also asked the FBI to improve its Combined DNA Index System, a national computer network that allows comparisons with samples in other states, and ordered a Justice Department study on how to eliminate delays in obtaining DNA test results, which can take from six months to a year.
"Ideally, with current technology, any delays in obtaining test results should be at most a matter of days rather than weeks, months or more," said Ashcroft.
The attorney general was joined at a news conference by Republican and Democratic lawmakers who supported the DNA backlog legislation, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who opposes Ashcroft's proposal to limit holding times for records generated by gun purchase background checks.
Schumer praised Ashcroft's DNA initiative. "You and I agree on a lot more than people think we do," said Schumer, whose state has 15,000 rape cases that have never been analyzed
Some lawmakers want federal grants for alleviating the DNA backlogs to be contingent upon states passing laws allowing convicts access to DNA testing that could exonerate them if the tests were not available at trial.
Twelve states have enacted such laws. According to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, 10 death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1990.
Asked whether he supports such a requirement, Ashcroft said, "There may be other things we can do. None of us has any desire to prolong the wrongful detention."