WASHINGTON – In California, the remains of a boy missing for two decades are finally identified. Two cold murders are solved in Kansas. And in Texas, a serial sexual predator is captured. The cases are cracked thanks to technology police are calling the fingerprints of the 21st century.
The FBI's DNA database, filled with genetic samples from prison inmates nationwide, has helped local authorities identify suspects in more than 11,000 cases in the last few years, officials say.
Just as importantly, police and lawyers say, the Combined DNA Indexing System (search), or CODIS, has freed prisoners wrongly convicted of crimes and helped detectives eliminate wrong suspects, saving manpower chasing false leads.
"The potential for us in the criminal justice field to solve crimes with this technology is boundless," said Joseph M. Polisar, police chief of Garden Grove, Calif., and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (search).
The FBI says more than 8,000 samples of genetic evidence from unsolved cases have been matched to past or current convicts in the database, helping solve crimes. An additional 3,000 samples have been matched to unidentified suspects in other cases that remain unsolved, creating links between cases.
The FBI lab was struck by controversy over shoddy work and exaggerated or false testimony by its scientists in the 1990s. Its current director, Dwight Adams, has addressed those issues and made a priority of expanding the DNA database.
A DNA scientist, Adams acted to insulate the DNA database from legal or scientific attack. His lab created a sophisticated identification system to safeguard the privacy of samples and ensure matches are double-checked before suspects are arrested.
"The process doesn't stop just because you make a match to an individual in the database," Adams explained in an interview. "The next stop in the process is for the law enforcement agency to obtain a warrant, get a blood sample from the same individual and do the same testing to ensure there is a match."
CODIS has genetic samples from more than 1.6 million criminals, most taken after they've entered prison. The database has more than 80,000 DNA samples gathered from unsolved crime scenes. Each month, local authorities add between 10,000 and 40,000 new samples.
The database was started in the early 1990s as a trial and expanded to 50 states in the late 1990s. Now, at least 170 local crime labs across the country can run DNA samples through the database and find matches.
One of the database's more dramatic successes occurred in Houston last November, when the FBI matched DNA evidence to help capture a bike-riding sexual predator who assaulted young boys at knifepoint.
The case stumped authorities for months and forced parents to keep their children inside before the database was used to match DNA from a victim to a known sexual offender in CODIS.
— Police in Wichita, Kan., were able to crack two old murder cases by finding DNA matches to prisoners. One was charged for the 1995 murder of an elderly woman; the other for a fatal stabbing.
— Massachusetts authorities were able to charge a convicted murderer last summer in the 1998 death of an elderly Foxboro woman who was stabbed 29 times.
— Police in California cracked the case last year of 16-year-old boy who disappeared in 1982. A man pleaded guilty to manslaughter after the FBI was able to extract DNA from headless skeletal remains and matched it to the missing boy's mother, confirming the victim.
Defense lawyers, though concerned about privacy issues, applaud the FBI's efforts and say they want the lab to make DNA science irrefutable, increasing the current 13 markers used for matches.
"Any mechanism which increases communication and cooperation between law enforcement agencies is a good idea. What we especially value or encourage ... is an increased reliance on scientific evidence over more traditional and less reliable forms of proof," said Steve Benjamin, a Virginia lawyer who co-chairs the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' (search) committee on forensic evidence.
When Adams joined the team of six FBI analysts and technicians that started the FBI's DNA section in 1988, it took six weeks to get police test results. Today, with 100 scientists on the FBI's DNA team and new technology, testing takes as little as 24 hours.
"If we can get this down to a few hours or less, we will improve all the more because there are still more cases and more samples that can be worked," said Adams.