WASHINGTON – Thousands more rapists could be caught if the federal government helped local police around the country work through a backlog of roughly half a million untested DNA samples, lawmakers said Tuesday.
Rape victim Debbie Smith broke down in tears as she described being raped in her home on March 3, 1989, and the overpowering worry that her anonymous assailant would return to kill her.
"I lost six and a half years of my life as I lived in constant fear," Smith said.
A DNA sample from her rape kit was matched to a convicted felon in 1995, and the man was ultimately sentenced to life in prison for the rape.
Around the country, it is estimated that anywhere from 180,000 to half a million rape kits sit untested, waiting for someone to compare them to DNA databases of convicted felons. Some think the number could be even higher.
"It breaks my heart," said Smith, of Williamsburg, Va. "These are not just case numbers, these are real lives."
Lawmakers, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Joe Biden, D-Del., and Reps. Mark Green, R-Wis., and Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., spoke in support of the Debbie Smith Act of 2003, which would provide more than $300 million to help local authorities clear the backlog of DNA samples.
A DNA test costs anywhere from $500 to $1,500.
A similar measure passed the Senate last year without dissent, but was never acted upon by the House.
The new version would also provide funding to train health care professionals on proper evidence-collecting techniques, and create federal standards for collection and testing.
Proponents say the bill would not just catch rapists, but in some instances exonerate the wrongly convicted.
Green said last year's bill would have passed the House but lawmakers "simply ran out of time" to get it done before the session ended.
"Shame on us if we don't finally act," said Clinton.
The Lifetime television network has urged viewers to support the legislation, and handed lawmakers 80,000 petitions of support Tuesday.
Weiner said New York City stood as an example of the positive results possible when officials are willing to commit the necessary money, noting the NYPD has cut its backlog from roughly 17,000 down to 2,000. In doing so, they have solved more than 154 outstanding rapes, "cold cases" that otherwise were unlikely to be solved.
New York was also the first city to file an indictment against a DNA profile, allowing authorities to greatly extend the statute of limitations in cases where the perpetrator is unknown.
The Debbie Smith Act would allow federal prosecutors to file similar "John Doe" indictments for rapes that take place on federal property.