State Shelves Crime-Solving Evidence Due To Lack Of Resources
Posted April 26, 2002 2:47 a.m. EDT
RALEIGH, N.C. — DNA evidence has cleared and convicted people across the country. In North Carolina, the proof that could solve thousands of cases never gets tested.
DNA is a genetic fingerprint. A hair follicle or tiny amount of body fluid can link suspects to crime. It is an incredible crime-fighting tool when police have nothing left to go on, and it can even prevent crime by getting suspects off the street before they strike again.
In North Carolina, WRAL found a system that shortchanges this technology, and for thousands of crime victims, puts justice on hold.
Hundreds of sexual assault kits, complete with DNA samples that may never be analyzed, sit stranded on police department shelves all over the state.
In 1992, a Triangle woman was raped by a man who broke into her home. The DNA evidence that could hold the key to catching her attacker has never been examined.
"I was just horrified," she said. "This is a stranger who comes into your house. This is a stranger who threatens your life and threatens your family, and this is the case they won't check the kit."
"Right now we have five qualified DNA analysts to handle the entire state of North Carolina," said Special Agent Mark Nelson of the
State Bureau of Investigation
The SBI Molecular Genetics Unit in Raleigh puts murders, police shootings and crimes with suspects in jail, at the top of its DNA testing list. Because of the limited staff to do the tests, most cases without suspects never make it through the door.
"We have asked agencies, if you don't have a clue as to who the suspect is, don't bother to submit it. So there are thousands of cases out there, in local police departments across the state, that are not being addressed," Nelson said. "We're not giving them justice right now, and it's eating at myself and all the staff up here."
Nelson estimates that if the crime lab accepted every case, it would push the DNA wait to well over a year. He said not only would testing slow to a snail's pace, but some innocent suspects could be left in jail.
"It's just a cold, cruel fact that if you don't have the resources to jump on every single case right now, you just have to do the best you can," he said.
To get a comparison, WRAL went to Richmond, Va.
Virginia has a population of about a million fewer people than N.C., but it has far more DNA analysts and gets far more results."
"We can't say no to any case," said Dr. Paul Ferrara, who oversees Virginia's Division of Forensic Science.
Thirty-eight analysts handle DNA testing for criminal cases here, compared to five analysts in North Carolina. The Commonwealth also has a support staff of about 30 more people.
With those resources, Virginia takes every conceivable DNA case from rapes to break-ins.
"That has resulted in a predictable explosion of new evidence coming into the laboratory," Ferrara said.
In Virginia, every convicted felon must give a DNA sample for the state's database. In North Carolina, only violent offenders and stalkers give DNA.
Virginia's convicted felon database has grown to 174,000; North Carolina's DNA database compares with about 35,000 felons.
Why is the database important? It solves crimes with no leads, no witnesses and no suspects.
Last year, using a federal grant, Virginia dug out over 350 old, unsolved cases. By comparing the DNA to their database of felons, they found matches for nearly half of them.
"For a very small investment, there's a huge return on that investment," Ferrara said.
Overall in 2001, Ferrara's team broke a total of 308 unsolved cases; North Carolina broke 26.
One of those local hits broke open the 11-year-old "Night Stalker" case in Goldsboro, where three elderly women were raped and murdered.
A database search linked
to the crimes. He is a man who police never even considered a suspect.
"We can solve crimes quicker. We can identify the perpetrators faster and we can get them off the street and we can keep them from continuing to attack people," Nelson said.
"To not use that technology to the fullest is a travesty," Ferrara said.
The local rape survivor lives that travesty.
"I feel deep disappointment and I feel like our priorities are so strange," she said.
The victim said she does not blame the scientists who won't take her case, she blames the system.
"It means not just my own safety, but my daughter's safety and my mother's safety and my sister's safety and my friends' safety," she said.
North Carolina is currently mired in a budget crisis and the crime lab is hanging on by its fingernails just to keep its current staffing levels.
Virginia is also facing big budget problems, but the crime labs rank so high on the priority list, that they are immune from the budget ax.