Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Feature

So Much For the Evidence

DNA Profiling Could Revolutionize Law Enforcement in Maryland--If We Let It

Autumn Whitehurst
Autumn Whitehurst

By Ralph Brave | Posted 8/7/2002

She told him that it was her first time, and that it was hurting. But that didn't slow him down.

Afterward, the 17-year-old Baltimore girl told the police that she had been forcibly taken out of her bed, led into the living room, and ordered to lie face down. Even though it had been dark, she believed she knew the identity of the rapist: her uncle. Police easily found the man. But they took no further action because, for reasons unstated in the police report, they didn't feel he met the victim's description. This was in 1997.

Four years later a DNA profile of the rapist was created from a dried semen stain taken for evidence in the case. The profile was run through state and national DNA databases, and a "hit" came up. Virginia's database contained a DNA profile for a person convicted of a drug felony that perfectly matched that of the rapist in the '97 Baltimore case. The matching profile belonged to the girl's uncle, just as she had told police four years earlier.

It was not the only hit for this profile. The uncle's DNA also matched that of the perpetrator in the rape of a 15-year-old girl four months after the assault on his niece--an attack that almost certainly would not have happened had city police secured a search warrant back in '97 to obtain the uncle's DNA.

Both crimes were solved in the fall of 2001 as part of a cooperative effort between the Baltimore Police Department and ABC News, which shared the costs of processing DNA in 50 unsolved, years-old "cold cases." Thirty-nine of the 50 turned out to have biological specimens in adequate condition to analyze the DNA. Four suspected rapists and one suspected murderer/rapist were identified (four were charged), and a man who had been in prison for two months on a rape charge was exonerated. Since then, two other profiles from this batch have matched with DNA from rapes in Illinois and New York (though the identities of the suspects remain unknown).

When the results were announced, law-enforcement officials and forensic scientists in Baltimore and nationwide were exultant. Up to 500,000 such cases--unsolved but with intact biological evidence such as rape kits--were estimated to be sitting on police-department shelves across the country; among them were 5,100 Baltimore cases, including 4,300 rapes and 800 homicides. Brian Ross, the ABC News reporter on the story, appeared on Oprah, and the queen of afternoon talk urged citizens to demand that their cities and states provide the funds to analyze the DNA in cold cases.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and police Commissioner Edward Norris, who had taken the risk of exposing the city's forensic dirty laundry to a nationwide audience, got a quick payoff for their gambit's success. The ABC report helped propel legislation they were supporting in Annapolis to greatly expand the state's DNA database. (Previously, DNA samples were collected only from those convicted of murder, rape, child abuse, and aggravated assault; the new law, enacted earlier this year, expanded the requirement to all felons and those convicted of misdemeanor breaking and entering.) The city and local philanthropy the Abell Foundation put up $350,000 each to begin processing Baltimore's cold-case backlog, and the city sought for a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grant to handle much of the rest of the backlog.

But since this initial burst of energy and activity, Baltimore's DNA initiatives have slowed to a crawl--and some may be about to grind to a halt. Only 75 of the 5,100 cold cases have been processed for DNA analysis. Even if the city gets the NIJ grant, officials say, analyzing the remaining cold cases would take two or three years. And the DNA-testing bill passed by the General Assembly included a provision nullifying the law unless $1.5 million in funding for expanding the DNA database is found from somewhere outside the state budget by Sept. 1. With barely three weeks before the deadline, no such source has been found. In the meantime, forensic units in Baltimore and around the state, constrained by limited lab facilities and a shortage of trained personnel, are straining just to meet the demand for DNA analysis of current caseloads, let alone cut into the backlog.

How could Maryland--home of leaders in DNA research such as Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and the National Institutes of Health, not to mention a world-class private biotech sector--be fumbling its development of forensic technology that could not only solve crimes to mathematical certainty but also quite possibly prevent them by the score, and free innocent suspects to boot? How will the city and state work through the muddle? And will doing so intrude on our civil liberties, as some fear?

Through the glass window of the security door, a stack of cardboard boxes is visible, each one wrapped in wide yellow tape with evidence repeatedly stamped on it in black. A young laboratory technician in white coat and safety glasses is carefully lifting a something out of a box; another is carefully maneuvering a liquid-bearing pipette.

It's a typical scene from a forensics crime lab, familiar to viewers of any of today's popular law-and-order TV shows. But a door bears a distinctly un-Hollywood touch, a simple sign on a sheet of 81/2 x 11-inch paper: number of missing from wtc 2830-- number of unique dna profiles obtained so far--1250 more than 1800--way to go team!

This is one of the labs of the Bode Technology Group, situated in an unprepossessing brick building in a small industrial park in Springfield, Va. Bode is one of the world's leading forensic DNA laboratories, and this particular lab is dedicated entirely to extracting and analyzing genetic material from the remains of bodies from the World Trade Center. Today, Bode senior vice-president and co-founder Kevin McElfresh explains, is a "drilling day for bones" in hopes of extracting DNA from the salvaged remains of Sept. 11 victims.

The technicians in another Bode lab are handling the firm's other work, extracting and analyzing DNA from biological specimens retrieved from murders, rapes, and other criminal cases, sent in by states and localities around the country. On this hot day in early June, these may include 75 cold-case crime-scene samples recently driven down from Baltimore. The work being done here, and at the Baltimore City Forensics Lab and four other Maryland crime labs equipped for DNA analysis, is based on scientists' understanding of both how genetically similar every person is to every other person and how individualized the small differences make us.

Every cell in your body, except for red blood cells, carries a complete copy of your own personal human genome, composed of approximately 3 billion units of DNA, half from your mother and half from your dad. Every person on the planet is pretty much an exact genomic copy--99.9 percent alike. That remaining 0.1 percent, or 3 million units of DNA, is what makes you unique.

Beginning in 1985, scientists discovered how to isolate some of those differences. Today, most forensic DNA science zeros in on the differences in the number of times a certain sequence of DNA repeats itself.

Say DNA sequence ABC resides at point X in your genome. You might have that ABC pattern repeat itself five times in your maternal DNA and nine times in your paternal portion. Someone else has six ABC repeats on Mom's side and 10 on Dad's. When a forensic lab works up the DNA profiles of you and this other person, the result is that at point X, you are a 5,9 and he or she is a 6,10.

By measuring the number of such repetitions at 13 different locations in any person's genome, scientists are now able to absolutely determine whether any particular biological specimen (blood, semen, saliva, etc.) comes from any particular person.

These sites serve no genetic function whatsoever, meaning that no one can get any information about you or your genetic status by looking at them. There are no big or even small secrets there. But the statistical probability of two people sharing the exact same number of repeats at all 13 locations is generally considered to be somewhere between one in 1 quadrillion and one in 1 quintillion. Given that there are only about 8 billion people on the planet, a mismatch is almost statistically impossible. That's why courts are freeing even death-row convicts when their DNA does not match that of a perpetrator's biological specimen.

The stories behind how those specimens end up at a forensics lab are sad and often horrific, but the procedures for testing them are clinical and standardized. In the simplest, most laymanlike terms: Blood or semen cells are extracted from whatever material they've become attached to and chemically broken open so that their DNA can be collected. While scientists generally need at least 100 cells to gather enough DNA for detecting the repeat patterns, they also have found ways to utilize even smaller amounts.

After making sure there is enough DNA, a test is run to confirm that it is human by identifying a DNA sequence that has been conserved by evolution for millions of years and is only carried by humans and higher primates. (This connection is not considered a problem in forensics; as one Baltimore County forensic analyst dryly notes, there have been no recent murders committed by orangutans.)

The DNA is then put into a machine called a thermocycler. After two and a half hours and several adjustments in temperature, the DNA in the thermocycler will have chemically copied itself millions of times.

Small tubes of the DNA are then placed in a genetic analyzer, a machine no bigger than a moderately sized desktop computer. The number of repeats at each of the 13 sites is measured and the results fed into a computer, which produces a series of colored wave bands indicating the number of repeated patterns. This is that person's DNA profile, and only that person's (or his or her identical twin).

The system for storing these profiles has three levels. Local law-enforcement agencies are charged with processing the evidence and obtaining the DNA profile. These profiles are uploaded and incorporated into state databases of convicted criminals (the states vary as to what crimes warrant inclusion); in Maryland it is maintained by the State Police. Finally, the FBI operates the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), through which states can compare a DNA profile gathered from a crime scene to all those in other states' systems.

Even if a particular profile doesn't match one in CODIS, the system is designed to periodically rerun the profile against any and all new additions. Just last month the total number of profiles nationally passed 1 million, and the number of identifications and exonerations based on these profiles now numbers in the thousands.

"If one had to argue, 'What's the one thing that biotechnology gave to society first,' this is it," says Bode's McElfresh, a Ph.D. population geneticist who has been in the forensics field since its very beginning. "Drugs are coming, diagnosis is still coming, some of it's there. But it surely is forensic DNA, for we have surely solved cases and surely have saved victims from horrible fates, and we surely have done something that makes an impact."

That impact is based on a singular, revolutionary reality: There is no way to beat DNA evidence. (Even O.J. Simpson's lawyers couldn't deny that the DNA profile presented at his murder trial was his; they simply created doubt in the jurors' minds about how it got to the crime scene.) But you can't use the evidence unless you can get it.

If you have any doubts about the potential impact of DNA evidence on criminal justice, stand in the doorway of the evidence room of the Baltimore City Police Crime Laboratory. Wooden shelves reach to the ceiling on all sides, piled with hundreds of cardboard flats, large brown paper bags, and red plastic trash bags. The only clue that this is something other than a regular storage facility are the handwritten signs taped to the walls above various sections of shelving, reading homicide or sexual assault.

These shelves hold the biological evidence from unsolved crimes. The cardboard flats are rape kits, containing vaginal swabs taken from the victims. The paper bags generally hold bed sheets or clothing with blood and semen stains. (Paper is used to allow continual aeration so that the bodily fluids remain dried and are not subject to degradation by bacteria.) The red plastic bags, filled with other crime-scene evidence, are affixed with yellow labels: biohazard. Some, city crime-lab director Edward Koch explains, contain body parts that have gelatinized or turned into liquid. "We're just flesh and bones," he says. "Easy come, easy go."

But these people didn't go easy, and that's why they are sitting liquefied on a shelf waiting to be processed for DNA evidence. And waiting. In other parts of the lab there are small flurries of activity that reveal something of the difficulty under which the city's forensics operation labors.

The lab currently has only one set of equipment for DNA analysis, operated by three analysts who are overseen by a part-time technical manager. This past spring, no DNA tests were run for several weeks when the machinery broke down due to overuse. Two of these analysts were enlisted from other forensics work performed in the lab, leaving those areas shorthanded. Crime-scene technicians--those who actually gather the evidence--are recruited to do voluntary overtime in the lab, screening biological specimens. In the meantime, undergraduate interns work through the cold-case file folders, categorizing them and making certain the cases haven't been closed. One gets the sense of an operation put together with paste and string and anything else that will get the job done.

Behind the glamorous, futuristic facade of biotechnology, forensic DNA work is labor-intensive; handled properly, each case demands long hours of work by specially trained personnel. From working with detectives to properly assess the significance of the evidence being processed, to handling the material in the course of profiling, to interpreting the data and writing up a report for the courts, there is no substitute for time, care, and expertise.

"We're all under the strain," says Koch, referring Maryland's five forensic labs. "Dr. [Louis] Portis of the Maryland State Police lab calculated it would take 50 DNA analysts to turn out this stuff in a timely manner. Right now, Maryland has only half of that."

Just keeping up with current demands is stressing the system. Maryland has discovery laws for DNA, whereby the defense and/or prosecution have to be notified 45 days before trial that DNA evidence is going to be used. Thirty days before trial copies of the DNA report must be provided to the defense. This all occurs within the rule under which a defendant must receive a trial within 180 days, unless a postponement is granted (which does happen often).

Koch recalls a recent case in which a judge ordered a DNA analysis to be in his chambers by noon the next day. The crime-lab director had to explain to the judge that a court-ready DNA analysis can take two weeks or more, depending on how many biological specimens have to be analyzed. "But people are used to seeing CSI, where the analysis is done by the commercial break," Koch says, referring to the hit TV series. "That's where a lot of the problem lies. They think it can be done overnight."

Forensics officials and technicians throughout the state confirm Koch's view. They complain of overwork and understaffing. With each publicized DNA success, the workload increases, as more detectives request analysis. Courts are also demanding DNA analysis of evidence, even when it is not probative or relevant to the crime--perhaps out of ignorance, or maybe because they fear not asking for everything could provide grounds for the defense to contest a verdict.

"Expand forensic DNA work? That's fine," says one experienced analyst who requests anonymity. "But give us the funding, give us the facilities, give us the people. The legislatures, both state and national, keep passing these laws with no support. Some people are getting out of the field just because it's not worth it anymore. . . .

"We can't hire more people here--not because we don't have any positions, but we don't have the space to put them in," the analyst continues. "Lab space is very, very expensive. Renovating just one room, because of the exhaust- and ductwork and all that, is a quarter of a million dollars. I'm all for these laws, but we don't have the people or the funding or the facilities."

State officials, facing Maryland's latest budget crunch, have offered little assistance, a response O'Malley blasts as not only bad criminal-justice policy but bad fiscal policy.

"I think that we should quantify that and compare it with what we spend on prisons, on pretrial detention facilities, on the court system, on the state's attorney, and on police officers," he says. "This is a small, small part of the budget of a wealthy state. If Virginia can do it as broadly as they do with their budget problems, why can't Maryland, as progressive as we claim to be, safeguard its citizens as well?"

Virginia represents one of the success stories in the development of forensic DNA. Led by Dr. Paul Ferrara, our neighbor's forensics lab has almost 200,000 convicted felons in its database and now makes two hits a day in matching suspects to crime-scene evidence. Maryland, by contrast, has fewer than 15,000. The Virginia lab started its collection of felons' DNA files in 1989, even before it had full funding, and pioneered outsourcing the profiling of older cases to a private company as a way to whittle away the backlog while the state handles current work.

How did Virginia manage to move so much faster and more effectively? Many credit the leadership of Ferrara, and his friendship with bestselling novelist Patricia Cornwell, whose crime-solving heroine, Kay Scarpetta, is a forensic scientist. Cornwell, who drew upon the experiences of Ferrara's lab in creating some of her stories, has made substantial donations to assist Virginia in forensics training. But more significant to most observers is that Virginia's forensics lab is its own state agency. Rather than being buried within the state-police bureaucracy, in which every dollar the lab receives is viewed as a trade-off against other police needs, Ferrara reports directly to the governor's office.

Maryland's shortcomings in this area were starkly outlined in a report issued last September by the Maryland Statewide Forensic Sciences Task Force, impaneled by Gov. Parris Glendening to determine what improvements state and local forensics labs needed to make to better compete for federal grant funds. Using a team of outside consultants, the task force found:

· While there are approximately 24 DNA analysts in Maryland, fewer than 20 cases a month were being analyzed and reported.

· At the Maryland State Police Crime Lab in Pikesville, productivity was low and backlogs high in sample-screening and DNA analysis.

· With only two DNA analysts (as of last fall), high-crime Baltimore City could not possibly keep up with the caseload. Lab staff were struggling to maintain both casework and validation responsibilities (i.e. confirming test results), causing inefficiency in both.

· Although $1,500 annually is required to maintain adequate training levels for DNA analysts, Baltimore spends only $12 a year on training per technical lab staffer, a figure that has not changed since 1980. Baltimore County does a bit better, spending $460.

Koch says the city lab has a game plan to handle the backlog and upgrade its capacity to deal with current casework. The DNA unit was audited and passed muster in April so that its DNA profiles may be used in the CODIS national system. Before this, the city could not upload samples analyzed in-house into CODIS nor qualify for National Institute of Justice grants. The lab is due to get another genetic analyzer from the city and would pay for another with the NIJ funds. A forensics degree program is in the works for the University of Baltimore.

But Koch's plan is built on what some in the police department dismiss as "voodoo math." The crime-lab director estimates it will take about two years to work through the evidentiary backlog. About 4,000 of the 5,000-odd cold cases are believed to still have evidence capable of producing a DNA sample; the two-year timeline would require processing about 39 cases per week. But Baltimore's lab analysts have to juggle their backlog work with current casework, and there's no guarantee as to the city's place on Bode's busy DNA dance card.

The lab's ability to meet its goal--or even come close--will have real consequences not only for solving past crimes, but preventing future ones. Most experts say a reasonable expectation is that 15 percent or more of those cold-case profiles will find a match either in the state or national databases of convicted offenders. (Other states are averaging 19 percent or more.) By this calculation, the city has within its grasp, today, the evidence to identify suspects in 600 or more violent crimes.

Except in the rarest of circumstances, those suspects will turn out to be guilty of those crimes. And the less time it takes to process the DNA evidence they left behind, police and forensics experts say, the less opportunity they will have to victimize others.

"People aren't looking at this enough as a crime-prevention tool," city police Commissioner Norris says. "Of course you want to solve the ones in the past, the murders and rapes, for the victims of those crimes. We should be doing that anyway. But it's a crime-prevention tool because they don't commit one crime and never do it again. There's a very high rate of recidivism for sex crimes. You're preventing that many more women from being victimized in the future. It's got to be done. To me, it's a national disgrace that it's taking so long."

But processing the cold-case DNA is only one half of the forensic equation. Having a significant database of previously convicted criminals against which to compare fresh samples is the other. The law expanding the number of crimes for which suspects' DNA samples are taken would add more than 21,000 profiles to the state database, more than double its current size. All newly convicted of felonies or misdemeanor breaking-and-enterings, still serving sentences for those offenses, or currently on probation would be tested. But the legislature passed the law with a proviso: It will not take effect until a commitment for the $1.5 million required to pay for the improved database was obtained from an outside source--and if that funding isn't found by Sept. 1, the law is voided.

Annapolis insiders say that the drop-dead provision was part of a cookie-cutter approach to any bill with a fiscal impact during the budget-conscious session, in which tobacco taxes were increased and spending was cut on several politically popular programs. Legislative leaders directed that measures requiring new spending had to include provisions on where the money would come from. The city lobbied for the law to at least be allowed to take effect without the deadline, so police agencies could start taking DNA swab samples from convicted felons, but a House-Senate conference committee ignored the plea.

With the days ticking away, O'Malley and Koch say they remain optimistic about getting the $1.5 million commitment. They say they are working closely with Maryland's congressional leadership to see if the U.S. Department of Justice will modify its schedule of grants to meet the deadline. But Norris and state crime-lab chief Portis are pessimistic.

Complicating the prospects for expanding the database is an additional sunset clause: Even if the financing is found in time, the legislature will need to renew the law in the coming session, or else it will expire on Sept. 30, 2003.

Even as Baltimore and Maryland grapple with getting their DNA act together, the law-enforcement and forensic communities have been debating how far the system of DNA profiling should go. The logic driving the debate is simple: The DNA database that is most representative of the population will solve the most crimes. Great Britain, where the technique was launched, now takes a DNA profile upon any arrest and is getting 700 to 800 matches per week. Louisiana has a similar law in effect, but it has not been fully implemented. This year Virginia extended its law to cover all felony arrests.

O'Malley favors profiling all arrestees for any crime, which he compares to the exist practice of fingerprinting.

"Oftentimes, the fingerprint hits we get are for fingerprints that you would never think would lead you to believe that the person was capable of committing murder," the mayor says. "If you have enough probable cause for an arrest and a fingerprint, you certainly have enough probable cause for taking a DNA sample. It's all about having the broadest library possible from which to solve these crimes."

But the broadest possible library is a DNA database that includes everyone. O'Malley doesn't go that far, though he says he could be persuaded. But others in the law enforcement and forensics community have concluded that's where it should go: a populationwide database for every resident of the United States. With such a development, wherever there was DNA evidence there would not be a cold case. The city's top cop and the heads of the Baltimore and Maryland crime labs concur.

"Why not?" the state-police lab's Portis asks. "I don't have a problem with it."

Koch and Norris note that such a system could have uses beyond nabbing suspects--identifying remains, for example, or locating missing children. "What happened with 9/11, [and] all the children being snatched in this country--I can't see ignoring this any longer," Norris says. "The technology's here. I think everyone should have a DNA profile."

No state or federal legislator has yet proposed legislation creating a universal database, but a system much bigger than the current one has been forecast by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who announced in March that the Justice Department would fund a national system able to accommodate up to 50 million DNA profiles, 50 times the number now stored in all databases nationwide.

Not everyone is comfortable with a more inclusive system, including some in the law-enforcement community. In Baltimore County, the technicians who collect crime-scene evidence were asked to submit a DNA sample so that the lab could separate those out in case of evidence contamination; the techs said no. Police unions in New York and Australia have objected to similar requests, citing fears of future job discrimination if other genetic information was discovered, such as predisposition to disease.

The contention is not about the DNA profile itself. That 26-digit profile is drawn from regions of DNA that have no function and can provide no additional information about a person's genetic status. Rather, the worry centers on the remaining biological sample in police custody, in which every cell contains a copy of a person's complete genome. What genetic information might the state one day decide it needs to gather from these samples?

There is already an opening in Maryland for genetic research on these samples--existing law permits them to be tested "for research and administrative purposes." While the law passed earlier this year was designed to support research to benefit forensic profiling, it does not limit the research to that purpose. There is no indication that anything has been done with those samples currently still in police custody throughout Maryland, and Koch says he's never been approached by academic or private researchers for access to the material. But there is precedent for such transfers: In the '90s, the South Carolina state agency that draws babies' blood to check for potential diseases shipped hundreds of samples to the state Law Enforcement Division for DNA profiling.

The most common answer to the question of how to address privacy concerns in an expanded DNA-profiling landscape is to simply destroy the biological sample from which the profile is drawn. That's the current practice in Maryland once a convicted felon has completed his or her sentence, Koch says, but the law doesn't require it. Crime-lab directors Portis and Koch agree with this method of protection, and Norris emphasizes the penalties for any misuse of the material.

"We have tremendous powers now," Norris says. "I have the technical capability to listen to any phone conversation. I can spy and look into your bedroom window from my truck. But I don't want to go to jail. You work within the law, and if people abuse the science, they'll be punished accordingly."

Whether people will be comforted or alarmed by Norris' examples depends upon their level of trust in the government. The question, then, is as much political as it is technological. This was how Columbia University professor and privacy expert Alan Westin framed it at one of the earliest conferences on forensic DNA technology, back in 1989.

"Will it be sociopolitically possible to adopt a data-bank approach only for the most extreme, socially justified forensic use and observe that boundary year after year or even decade after decade?" Westin asked during the conference. "It must be understood that the law is perfectly capable of approving some DNA sample data-bank uses and forbidding others. The real problem is political, not legal. If DNA-sample analysis proves to be as powerfully accurate as its champions maintain and if there is little or no invasion of dignity in obtaining samples, the danger to civil-liberties interests is that social pressures to adopt very broad government specimen-collection and computerized storage programs might become virtually irresistible. And once such programs were adopted, DNA analysis could become a powerful tool for applications that might raise serious issues of race and class equality, pressure against unpopular groups, and similar civil-liberties concerns."

The 13 years of DNA profiling since Westin's remarks have perhaps lessened such concerns when it comes to the DNA profile itself. But continued advances in genetic knowledge can only heighten those worries when it comes to government retention of individuals' biological samples with their entire genetic blueprints intact.

Whatever debate remains about the extent to which Maryland should collect DNA profiles, there seems to be a near-unanimous consensus across government and law enforcement that some expansion and upgrade is necessary. It's the commitment to funding that upgrade that is lagging.

Both parties' leading gubernatorial candidates have endorsed a more aggressive forensic-DNA program. Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has included it in her campaign platform. But the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which Townsend oversees as lieutenant governor, has so far had no involvement with the issue.

Her likely Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, gave a speech in June endorsing many of the recommendations of the statewide forensics task force, including the creation of a state forensics academy. But nowhere has he said how he would fund the multimillion-dollar initiative. An Ehrlich spokesperson says only that he would first go after "the low-hanging fruit" of federal grant dollars--something that's already being done.

"Show me the money" is by now a tiresome expression, but it's a solid guide when it comes to the future of forensic DNA. Virtually the entire field of forensics is undergoing a fundamental transition to DNA-based systems. That transition not only requires substantial front-end funding for laboratories, equipment, and trained personnel, but will demand continual investment as the technology changes, the databases get larger, and more and more police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and courts utilize DNA evidence.

Where will the money come from? The Baltimore-born-and-raised co-founder of Bode Technology Group, Tom Bode, points to a multimillion-dollar-plus boost in federal funding in bills sponsored by U.S. Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Hilary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Maria Caldwell (D-Wash.). "Now I think we have to step up as a nation and do something about it," Bode says.

O'Malley acknowledges the need for the city and local governments to do their part, but still his gaze turns south to Annapolis. "We're not opposed to this being a shared cost. Local jurisdictions should be responsible for making sure that they don't have a backlog," he says. "This is not something that necessarily should be a totally state-funded endeavor.

"But let's face it, it needs to be properly managed, and the state is the one that controls the prisons and has the ability to create this database right here and now that can save a heck of a lot of lives, spare a lot of women from becoming victims."

Virginia's Ferrara recalls a recent case in which a suspect held on a shoplifting charge was also suspected of a rape. The man's DNA sample was taken, and Ferrara's lab was urged to expedite analysis of the sample and the rape kit. But with several other high-priority cases on its agenda, the lab was unable to get the analysis done before the shoplifting charge was dropped and the suspect freed. Eleven days later he raped and murdered a woman named Jemma Saunders in Norfolk. As it turned out, the previous rape kit did produce a DNA sample that matched the suspect.

"I openly talk about this case because I accept a certain amount of responsibility personally," Ferrara says. "Of the thousands of cases I've handled, the fact that I still know Jemma Saunders' name speaks for itself."

Some forensics experts sadly wonder whether a similar, avoidable tragedy will have to befall someone better known or better connected--a celebrity's kin, or an office holder's--before the public and political will is aroused to address the untapped potential of forensic DNA. The then-15-year-old in that 1997 Baltimore case might very well tell us it shouldn't. Jemma Saunders might too, if she only could.

Related stories

Feature archives

More Stories

Thanks For the Memories (12/23/2009)
2007: I had a borderline awful time in Bucharest—and I kind of miss it

Vini Vidi Vito (4/8/2009)
Vito Simone came to Baltimore, saw opportunity, and conjured a real estate fantasy

Preacher, Teacher, Forger, Spy (4/16/2008)
From Bounty Hunter to Bible Thumper, Pastor Anthony Hill Presents a Paradox

More from Ralph Brave

The Heat Is On (9/6/2006)
For Writer-Turned-Activist Mike Tidwell, Soon Is Too Late To Start Worrying About Global Warming

Three Feet Higher and Rising (7/12/2006)
Facing Global Warming In Maryland

Power Failure (4/5/2006)
Maryland Loses Control of its Energy Future

Comments powered by Disqus
Calendar
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter