Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript

News Conference - DNA Initiative
Monday, March 4, 2002
DOJ Conference Center

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. Douglas and Lori White were married just 11 days when walking down a bike path in Mesquite, Texas in November of 1993 a man jumped out from behind the trees and demanded their money. The frightened couple began to pray, which enraged their attacker. He shot Douglas dead on the scene, raped Lori and disappeared into the Dallas suburb.

    Eight years later, in January of 2001, under the federal DNA Backlog Reduction Program, police in Dallas matched a DNA sample taken from Alvin Avon Braziel, Jr. with DNA evidence collected from the crime scene. Braziel was convicted of capital murder and given the death sentence.

    The murder conviction of Alvin Braziel is a powerful example of how one technology -- forensic DNA analysis -- has revolutionized law enforcement. Over the short span of 10 years, DNA technology has proven itself to be the truth machine of law enforcement, ensuring justice by identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent.

    With the strong support of Congress, the Department of Justice has served as a leader in the national effort to maximize the benefits of DNA evidence, and the past five years have seen a national explosion in forensic DNA collection. All 50 states and the federal government now have laws on the books that require DNA to be collected from convicted offenders for the purpose of criminal DNA databasing. The strong trend is toward broader DNA sample collection, including collection from all felons in many states, and the reason is simple: Experience has taught law enforcement that the more offenders that are included in the database, the more crimes will be solved.

    More DNA collected, however, means more DNA that must be analyzed in order to be useful to law enforcement. Today there are literally hundreds of thousands of samples from crime scenes and from offenders that are awaiting analysis in evidence storage lockers and forensic laboratories across the country. One estimate puts the number of unanalyzed rape kits at 180,000. In Los Angeles alone, authorities recently identified over 3,000 unsolved homicides with frozen but untested crime-scene samples.

    The longer this evidence goes unanalyzed, the longer the crimes to which it relates go unsolved. And for the victims of these most violent crimes, justice delayed is truly justice denied.

    Last August I directed the National Institute of Justice to identify ways to eliminate delays in DNA analysis and reduce the backlog of unexamined samples. The DNA Delay Reduction Working Group formed pursuant to that directive includes many of the nation's leading experts on DNA analysis, including representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. I thank the members of the group, who are meeting here today in the Justice Department, for lending their expertise to more fully utilizing this remarkable crime-fighting tool.

    In addition to the current work of the DNA Delay Reduction Group, the Department of Justice has addressed the DNA backlog through funding assistance to the states. Beginning in fiscal year 2000, the department has provided funds to the states to help clear their backlogs of unanalyzed convicted offender DNA samples. This assistance program included a requirement that states receiving these federal funds agree to analyze a certain number of no-suspect cases; that is, DNA from crimes for which police have not yet identified a suspect for each convicted offender sample analyzed with program funds. For example, if a state analyzed 50,000 convicted offender DNA samples with federal program funds, it was required to analyze no fewer than 500 no-suspect cases.

    The Department of Justice instituted this approach in the year 2000 with confidence that creating incentives for states to analyze evidence from no-suspect cases would result in more crimes matched to offenders and to other crimes perpetrated by the same offender. Today it's my pleasure to report that the success of this program has surprised even its most enthusiastic proponents. To date, over 347,000 convicted offender DNA profiles and nearly 8,000 no-suspect cases have been analyzed. This analysis, under the DNA Backlog Reduction Program, has identified 610 offenders and has produced 193 what are called forensic hits in which cases which were not known to be related are found to have been committed by the same offender, meaning that a no-suspect case is aligned with another no-suspect case.

    The states that participated in the program achieved a remarkable 19 percent average hit rate. That is, of the no-suspect DNA cases they analyzed in which a usable DNA pattern was obtained, an average of 19 percent matched either convicted offenders in the database or DNA evidence from other crime scenes. A number of states had an even higher success rate in matching DNA samples to criminals and other crimes. Virginia had a 48 percent hit rate. Kansas had a 28 percent hit rate. North Carolina analyzed 154 cases under the federal program and made 25 hits. Fifty percent of those hits were rape cases.

    As a result of this innovative program, we have identified suspects, made arrests and brought solace to the families of multiple murder victims. In one typical case, a cigarette left at the scene of an assault on a woman in Ohio was analyzed and matched with a convicted-offender profile to produce a suspect. The man was arrested in May and pled guilty to attempted rape and kidnapping.

   In Washington state, the program assisted officials in identifying a suspect in cases associated with the Green River killings, in which 49 prostitutes and runaways were murdered between 1982 and 1984.

   In addition, two persons who were wrongly convicted in Texas and Ohio have been exonerated under this program.

    The success of the DNA backlog reduction program and its potential for even greater success in the future merits the continued support of the Department of Justice and the United States government and its taxpayers. Today, I am announcing a commitment of over $100 million for DNA analysis and backlog reduction under this program, including over $40 million to reduce the convicted offender DNA backlog and $60 million committed to analyze no-suspect cases. This amount includes funding available in fiscal year 2002 and funding included in the president's budget for 2003.

    Of the $60 million for the no-suspect casework program, $25 million is being disbursed under an existing solicitation by the National Institute of Justice. The remaining $35 million will be put out through future solicitations, the first of which will be issued by the National Institute of Justice within the next 60 days.

    This substantial commitment of resources will support the expanded use of DNA technology to identify the perpetrators of the most brutal crimes and bring closure to their victims. I commend Congress for the significant funding it is currently providing for the backlog reduction program, and I encourage the states to take full advantage of this federal support.

   The law enforcement tool that makes this DNA analysis useful to state and local police and prosecutors throughout the nation is the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS. It's administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. CODIS brings the power of DNA technology to bear on thousands of law enforcement investigations by integrating information obtained by state DNA databases and making that information available nationwide -- in other words, to individuals in other states as well.

    Last August I directed the FBI to submit to me recommendations for implementing a redesign of the architecture of CODIS to enhance the system's storage and search capacity, and to provide immediate access to system information by participating agencies and improve the efficiency of the system. The FBI has now reported to me a CODIS redesign and enhancement plan that will achieve these goals.

    Among the improvements that will be gained by implementing the plan are these:

    One, increasing the system's capacity from 1-1/2 million DNA profiles to 50 million DNA profiles.

    Two, reducing the search time for matching DNA profiles submitted by law enforcement to profiles in the database. So a profile is submitted, it's compared to the database -- we will reduce that time from two hours to just seconds, if not microseconds.

    Three, increasing the frequency with which search requests are performed against the national DNA database from weekly to instantly. Currently, once a week searches are made. That should be a process that takes place any time there is a request for a search -- an instant search capacity.

    Four, reducing system server sites from 181 to one, allowing central management of software upgrades at one location and greatly reducing the hardware and software costs for the states. Today I am directing the FBI to implement the CODUS redesign plan as soon as practicable, so that these benefits and the benefits of these improvements can be realized by law enforcement.

    Finally, building on the promising result of our pilot program, I am directing the relevant components of the Department of Justice to utilize our grant programs and resources to maximize the effectiveness of the DNA technology in solving crimes and promoting public safety.

    This directive includes, among other measures: one, identifying the most effective approaches for forensic laboratories to select and prioritize cases for DNA analysis; two, engaging law enforcement personnel to identify cases appropriate for solution through DNA testing, to preserve potential DNA evidence in those cases, and to submit the evidence for analysis and matching; three, encourage the development of expansive offender databases to maximize the solution of crimes through DNA matching; in other words, encourage states to put as many of those individuals appropriately who ought to be in the databases into the databases.

    The initiatives I've announced today build on a proven record of success in ensuring that our criminal justice system utilizes the potential of DNA technology. The nation's law enforcement and criminal justice officials must never be forced to ask themselves what could DNA technology have done for a case or, even more importantly, to explain to the victim of violent crimes that if we had only had the resources to eliminate the DNA backlogs, they might not have been victimized at all.

    We have arrived at an exciting, auspicious moment in the administration of justice. We have a tool, DNA analysis, that allows us to solve many crimes very quickly and to a degree of certainty previously unavailable to law enforcement. We do ourselves and the American people we serve an injustice if we fail to utilize this remarkable tool of DNA technology.

    The initiatives I've announced today will help ensure that we harness DNA technology to punish the guilty, to protect the innocent and to ensure that the full, fair and just administration of the nation's laws will, in fact, take place.

    Thank you. I'd be happy to answer questions you have. Yes, sir?

    Q Sir, there have been several reports in recent days about terror alerts issued in October related to nuclear attack either in New York or in Washington. From a law enforcement perspective, can you tell us how relevant some of those alerts may be now and what is being done to counter any perceived threats?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think it's fair for me to say that this administration, when it has credible information about an attack that it feels is a serious threat, that it will share that attack with appropriate -- that information, pardon me, with appropriate officials to take steps to secure the public and the safety and security of the people in our communities.

    That has been our policy. That remains our policy. And it's with that in mind that we will continue to operate.


    Q Do you think the federal government made the right decision in not notifying the New York public officials about the possibility of any threat?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm not going to be making comments about either reported threats or actual threats or assessing threats. I just want to provide the information, which I did in response to the previous question.


    Q With respect to DNA and the testing of some of the detainees now in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, the director said yesterday that some of the detainees have already had samples taken. But will there be a new database or a new section of CODIS, will CODIS be expanded to include these alleged terrorists' analyses?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I can tell you that we are going to take every reasonable step to make sure that we identify those individuals who have been involved in the terrorist effort against the United States -- supporting it, sustaining it, or fighting against the United States. And certainly DNA, collection of DNA, identifying characteristics, those identifiers are valuable, and to be understood as valuable and collected. I'm not prepared to indicate to you the extent to which those might be integrated or used with other DNA databases in the country.


    Q Senator Leahy said some months ago that the federal government ought to require the states to include DNA analysis before someone is executed. Do you have a position on that or does the department have a position on that?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The department is assembling a response to Senator Leahy's request for comment on his bill. The response will be announced when it is appropriate.

    I would indicate, though, that I believe that DNA, as I said in my remarks, has the potential not only of helping convict the guilty, but to make sure that we don't convict the innocent. And as a matter of principle, it is the policy of this Justice Department to support items which will provide a basis for us having a Justice system which reaches the right conclusion -- protecting the innocent as well as convicting the guilty.


    Q General, we're coming up on the six-month anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I was wondering if in your opinion you think that we've done enough to prevent any future catastrophic event like that?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We have taken a very serious set of steps to improve our development of information, and information is the best friend of prevention. We have begun to integrate at a far higher level of seriousness the efforts of state and local communities and law enforcement officials with the federal government. I spoke to a conference on terrorism in Florida this morning early, and then later today, with the National Association of Counties, and we are integrating our effort and the ability to exchange information and gather intelligence with our state and local officials.

    We are meeting on a regular basis with our counterparts in nations around the world to develop an understanding which will provide better information from and information exchange from those entities.

    You'll note that the September 11th attack was a fragmented attack. It was planned in one area; trained in another area; undertaken in another area. And this fragmentation of the effort makes the interval for detection of these different things very difficult, because the interval is shorter in each space than if there was training, planning and execution all in one locality. This requires us to be far more cooperative and integrated in our approach.

    Now, to get to your question. We have done much to improve our position, but we believe that we need to be very alert. I personally believe that the training of tens of thousands of individuals in the camps designed to develop terrorists who have the capacity to hurt not only the United States but freedom-loving people around the world, that that training was intended to sustain more than one day of attack. And so I will continue to do everything I can and to encourage others. And I would recommend that we all have the kind of alertness for which we give gratitude when we think about the people either on Flight 63, who subdued a threat, or those individuals on Flight 93, who gave their own lives up so that the plane would land in Pennsylvania rather than here in Washington.


    Q With respect to the DNA again, did the FBI ask for the ability to include those DNA profiles from suspected terrorists in CONUS? Is that something the Justice Department is reviewing or considering doing based on an FBI --

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I really can't answer that question now. I wish I -- I do know this: that we are collecting, making reasonable collections of identifying characteristics of those who are part of the assault against America, and I'm just not prepared to say at this time the full extent to which those will be deployed who are integrated with various databases that we maintain.

    Thank you very much.