Attorney General News Conference
August 1, 2001 at 12:15 p.m.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good morning. Let me begin by welcoming Orrin Hatch and Chuck Schumer, two members of the Judiciary Committee in the United States Senate, who are here from the Hill today to join me. And I want to thank them for their efforts in creating the law that it will be our job to enforce.
DNA identification technology is one of the most important tools law enforcement has developed since the advent of fingerprinting. Today I'm announcing several actions by the Department of Justice to strengthen the effectiveness of this powerful tool. The changes will expand the use of DNA technology in the critical investigative stage of criminal cases, when the chance of identifying criminals, protecting the innocent, and solving crime is the greatest.
DNA contains a person's genetic material. It's found in nearly every cell in the human body, and except in the case of identical twins -- my wife constantly reminds me that she and her sister are identical -- except in those cases, each person's DNA is unique. This makes DNA analysis an unparalleled law enforcement tool. When all the relevant genetic markers contained in DNA are used, the reliability of the identification of the perpetrator of a crime is 100 percent. In such cases, DNA
analysis identifies the guilty party with absolute certainty, and that certainty excludes all other persons.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation administers the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national computerized system which enables DNA technology to be used for law enforcement and edification purposes. CODIS integrates the information obtained under state DNA data systems and makes it available on a nationwide basis by matching crime scene evidence to DNA profiles of convicted offenders or to DNA found at the scenes of other crimes. This system allows law enforcement to solve murders, rapes and other serious crimes, which may be unsolvable by other investigative methods. DNA analysis also gives us the ability to protect the innocent from wrongful suspicion, accusation and conviction by excluding individuals as the source of biological material left at the scene of a crime.
Thus, in cases where testable evidence exists, DNA technology can operate as a kind of truth machine, ensuring justice by identifying the guilty and clearing the innocent.
The system's effectiveness, however, depends on the amount of information it contains and the ability to access and use that information. Backlogs of unanalyzed DNA samples and unacceptable delays in analysis of crime scene DNA evidence are now preventing full utilization of this remarkable technology in solving crimes and promoting justice.
It is estimated that over 180,000 rape kits -- this is collected DNA -- sit in evidence storage lockers across the country, unanalyzed as DNA evidence. Contributing to the urgency of the need to eliminate this backlog is the fact that the time limit for prosecution may expire before the evidence is analyzed, thereby permanently foreclosing prosecution for the crime.
Disturbingly, it has been reported that in many instances, police do not even submit rape kits to crime labs when they have no suspect, because they believe the evidence will never get analyzed. This is a missed opportunity that is creating additional victims of brutal crimes. In one recent case in Virginia Beach, police held a suspect on a shoplifting charge whom they also suspected in the rape and stabbing of a woman. But because of a backlog of some 1,000 other cases awaiting DNA analysis, the evidence from the Virginia Beach crime scene was not analyzed before the suspect, Christopher Banks (sp), was released on the shoplifting charge. Eleven days later, he raped and killed 22-year-old Gemma Saunders (sp) in Norfolk, Virginia. When the initial DNA evidence was eventually analyzed, it revealed that Banks had, indeed, committed the Virginia Beach rape and stabbing.
In other cases, the failure to analyze and index DNA evidence in a timely fashion has led to innocent people being wrongly accused of crimes. In one case, a Virginia man spent six months in jail awaiting the DNA analysis that absolved him of a rape with which he was charged. Had timely DNA analysis been done, this man would not have lost six months of his life to a mistaken accusation.
To realize the remarkable potential of DNA technology, we must fully incorporate it into the entire cycle of criminal investigation and adjudication. Today I'm announcing a four-point initiative to improve the use of DNA technology throughout the criminal justice system.
Now, the first part of this initiative addresses the enormous backlog of DNA evidence that awaits analysis in state forensic labs. The Department of Justice is making available more than $30 million for assistance to the states for reducing these backlogs and making this evidence available for solving crimes. Over $16 million will be used for assistance to the states in reducing their backlogs of unanalyzed convicted offender DNA samples.
It is expected that approximately 500,000 samples will be analyzed with those funds. In addition, $15 million will go to increasing the state's capacity to analyze crime scene DNA samples in cases involving no known suspects, resulting in thousands more samples analyzed. Backlogs of rape kit DNA samples, for example, will be analyzed in order to solve sexual assault cases in which there are no other leads as to the perpetrator's identity. Through this funding, the long-term effects should lead to solving thousands more rapes and murder cases.
The second part of this initiative will help ensure the comprehensiveness of our DNA identification system by adding samples from federal convicted offenders to the DNA samples currently collected by the states. In June, the Department of Justice issued a regulation to implement provisions of the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act, which authorized the collection of DNA samples from an estimated 20(,000) to 30,000 federal, District of Columbia and military offenders. This act of the Congress, then, is a very important part of making sure that we have the completeness or additional population in our database.
The federal criminals from whom DNA samples will be collected include persons convicted of various offenses involving murder, voluntary manslaughter, sexual abuse, trafficking in persons, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, or attempts to commit these crimes. In the last two weeks, 7,000 DNA sample kits have been sent to federal agencies responsible for DNA sample collection, and the collection from federal offenders has begun.
The third part of our DNA identification improvement plan is to undertake system-wide improvements to CODIS, the national DNA identification system. I am directing the FBI to carry out the changes in the architecture and operations of CODIS that will enable it to accommodate the system's foreseeable future needs and allow participating forensic labs to obtain immediate electronic access to the system for the purpose of solving crimes.
Some of the solutions the FBI has proposed to these problems, and which I endorse, include transforming CODIS from over 100 geographically and organizationally separate database servers to a centrally managed database system. The expected benefit of this change includes making data storage and search capacities sufficient to meet all future foreseeable needs, and providing immediate electronic access to information in the national DNA database by participating agencies to help solve crimes.
And finally, we are taking the action to address what I consider to be unacceptable delays in the processing of DNA evidence. In the United States today, there are typically delays between six months and a year in carrying out DNA analysis of submitted crime scene evidence. Even in the most efficient jurisdictions there tend to be delays for three to four months. In the meantime, killers, rapists and other serious offenders who could be identified and apprehended through DNA testing remain at large to commit more crime. In addition, resources are consumed in pursuing cases that might quickly be resolved by DNA results. Innocent persons who would be cleared through DNA testing risk being wrongfully suspected or accused and detained for crimes they did not commit.
We can do much better. Ideally, with current technology, any delays in obtaining test results should be, at most, a matter of days rather than weeks or months or more. New technologies such as DNA microchips should expedite analysis from days to minutes. Such a chip is currently under development and is expected to be in the hands of our labs for testing by December of this year.
I am, accordingly, taking the step of asking the National Institute of Justice to carry out a comprehensive assessment, both with current technology and future technology, of the problem of delays in DNA analysis, to be followed by recommendations for addressing delays in DNA analysis. Now, this is the first time such a comprehensive and unified approach has been undertaken to maximize the value of DNA for criminal justice system application.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, the hallmark of criminal justice in America is to protect the innocent by bringing the guilty to justice. We have a tool, an outstanding one, DNA analysis, that can revolutionize this process by identifying those who have committed crimes quickly and to a degree of certainty previously unable to law enforcement. We do ourselves and the American people we serve an injustice if we fail to utilize this remarkable tool to the fullest extent possible.
The initiatives I have announced today will help to ensure that we harness DNA technology to punish the guilty, to protect the innocent, to ensure the full, fair, and just administration of the laws in the nation.
Members of the Congress are basis for our ability in the Justice Department to announce these kinds of changes. The funding is a result of the Congress's understanding of the need, and the capacity to develop the databases and to refine them is a result of their understanding of the opportunity to promote justice through technology.
I want to thank each of the members of the Congress who are here today, and I just have the privilege of noting that not only do we have the senator from New York, we have the congressman, Ben Gilman, from New York. I'll start with Senator Hatch and then Senator Schumer. And Ben, thank you very much for coming to be a part of the meeting today.
SEN. HATCH: Well, thank you, General. I am very honored to be here, and I'm really pleased with the work that you're doing down here, and this is just one illustration of how you're moving ahead.
In recent years, DNA analysis has emerged as one of the most powerful tools in solving crime, as the attorney general has said -- many times more powerful than fiber analysis, blood typing or even fingerprint evidence. DNA testing has given us the power to solve crimes that in past years we would have no hope of solving. It has also, in some cases, given us the opportunity to identify individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of crime, as the general has said.
The vast potential of DNA testing to identify the perpetrators of crime has not so far been fully realized. We have had a good illustration that we're so far behind in so many ways. Because forensic laboratories have not received needed equipment or trained technicians, there are literally thousands of crimes that are simply sitting in forensic laboratories around our country, waiting in line to be solved. Typically, an evidence sample must wait, as General Ashcroft has said, for six months to a year before being tested, if then.
Some of us in Congress have recognized the crisis in our country's forensic laboratories and have worked for years to increase the funding for DNA testing. Finally, last year we were able to pass the DNA Analysis Backlog Reduction Act of 2000. That act authorized $170 million over four years to help the states expand the capacity of these forensic laboratories to conduct these DNA tests. And I'm pleased today that the Department of Justice is taking the next step in implementing the Backlog Reduction Act.
Millions of dollars are being made available to the states for equipment and personnel that will allow the states to proceed with this DNA analysis.
Money will be made available to the states to test biological evidence that has been recovered from crime scenes in which there are no known suspects. For example, DNA testing will be done on rape kits in order to solve sexual assault cases in which there are no other leads to the perpetrators' identity.
Number two, money will be available to the states to obtain DNA profiles from convicted offenders. These profiles will be added to CODIS, the national database of DNA profiles administered by the FBI.
Now, number three, the Bureau of Prisons will begin implementing its own program of compiling DNA profiles of felons who are currently incarcerated in our federal system for the commission of violent crimes.
And number four, the FBI will implement upgrades to the CODIS system itself, enhancing the capability of federal, state and local laboratories to gain immediate access to the database.
Number five, the National Institute of Justice will carry out a new study on the DNA backlog and make recommendations for further actions to speed up the process.
So I applaud Attorney General Ashcroft for jumping on this issue, moving it ahead, getting it done and doing it in an expeditious and reasonable way, because we really do want to accomplish all of these things that he has so fully discussed in his extensive statement. And of course, we want to catch the perpetrators, convict them and release those who are innocent and make sure that no innocent person goes to jail.
SEN. SCHUMER: Well, thank you. And first, let me thank you, General, for having us here today to stand with you for this important announcement. You and I agree on a lot more issues than most people think we do. (Laughter.) And it's great to see you and work with you here today, and I appreciate your graciousness in inviting us.
I also want to thank my colleagues. We all worked on this legislation in the House and Senate; Senator Hatch and Senator Leahy, who couldn't be here, who has also done a lot of work on this, and Congressmen Gilman and Weiner, both coming from my state of New York.
Now, for centuries now, we've had the world's greatest system of criminal justice, and that's based on the judgment of 12 ordinary men and women who hear the evidence and do their best to reach a fair verdict.
Today we can offer them a powerful new tool, one that acts as a virtual truth serum in some criminal proceedings. With DNA, we can invest the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" with even greater certainty. DNA not only allows us to clear the innocent; it also helps us to apprehend the guilty. It is neutral, actually, in terms of its application, because it's a truth serum, in a certain sense.
Now we all share the goal of ensuring that only the guilty suffer punishment. Nothing will corrode public faith in our criminal justice system more quickly and surely than the specter of innocent men and women languishing in prisons for crimes committed by others.
And we should not be stingy or technical about this. DNA testing is relatively cheap, it's rapidly accomplished and near perfectly accurate. All convicted offenders who need it should get it, so we can be absolutely sure about who we convict and punish.
But DNA is more than a tool to help people already in prison. It's an extraordinary crime fighter, which we should put to much wider use.
In my state of New York, we have 15,000 rape kits that are sitting in refrigerated warehouses, awaiting DNA testing and possible matching to people with profiles already in state or federal databases.
Nationwide, the estimates are that 180,000 rape kits require analysis. That means that 180,000 rapes, potentially, have gone unsolved. It means that potentially 180,000 rapists remain at large, free to strike again. It means that potentially 180,000 women cannot move on, cannot breathe easier, cannot fully recover, because we haven't provided the police with every available tool to bring their attackers to justice.
We need to do a better job of using DNA to catch criminals, and I am proud to stand here with the attorney general, because today we make giant steps down that road.
I commend the Department of Justice and the attorney general for implementing this plan. Substantial funds will go to clear DNA backlogs at forensic labs, collect samples from convicted felons, improve our database, and speed up delays, as the attorney general has outlined.
This is just the sort of balance we need between protecting the innocent whole enhancing law enforcement's ability to apprehend and properly punish the guilty.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Ben?
REP. BENJAMIN GILMAN (R-NY): Thank you very much, Attorney General.
Our gratitude goes out to the attorney general for his support of our law enforcement activities and particularly the DNA technology, which has backlogged so tremendously over the years. The attorney general is certainly a great friend to our law enforcement community and judicial system, and we're proud of your service to our country.
Our nation's fight against violent crime, of course, is a never- ending fight. Every day the use of DNA evidence is becoming a more and more important tool to all of us and particularly to the law enforcement community in solving crimes, convicting the guilty, and exonerating the innocent.
There's a double edge to this tool. It's helpful throughout the judicial system.
Just last year our New York state governor, George Pataki, enacted legislation to expand the state's collection -- New York state's collection of DNA samples, which shortly thereafter resulted in charges being filed in a 20-year-old Westchester County murder.
However, the growing nationwide backlog of DNA samples from convicted offenders and unsolved cases continues to be a serious threat to the effective use of that important technology in our crime- fighting efforts. Accordingly, along with former Congressman McCollum of Florida; Representatives Scott, Ramstad, Stupak, Kennedy; Congressmen Weiner -- who's with us here today -- and Chabot; and the FBI, we were able to pass the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act, providing some $30 million to our law enforcement community to address the needs of our prosecutors, our law enforcement people, and victims throughout our nation.
It's gratifying to be able to join our Attorney General Ashcroft today to implement this important measure and to enforce our law enforcement personnel, providing them the equipment and the support they need to fight violent crime and to protect all of our communities by making certain that they have the resources needed for their DNA databanks and crime laboratories.
Thank you again, Attorney General Ashcroft.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Thank you. Thank you.
REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D-NY): Thank you very much.
I want to thank you, Mr. Attorney General, for hitting the ground running so quickly on this important issue that unites so many of us -- whether we're concerned about putting the right people behind bars or making sure that the wrong people are not incarcerated, your efforts have moved us much closer -- Congressman Gilman and Congressman Sensenbrenner, who I understand is on the way here, as well.
I want to begin by telling a story that Mr. Gilman alluded to, about the Gregory family of Westchester County, New York. In August of 1979, Diane Gregory, a 22-year-old woman, was brutally stabbed to death in her apartment in Mount Vernon, New York. Bloodstains found at the evidence of the crime scene were preserved as evidence.
The police had some good leads, but -- and they had a fair amount of forensic evidence, but they could not put their suspect at the scene of the crime, and the case went unsolved for over 20 years.
Fast-forward to December of 1999. New York Governor Pataki signs a new law in New York expanding the state's DNA database. Now all convicted criminals must submit DNA for testing, including robbers. So in January of last year, a career criminal serving time for robbery, named Walter Gill, is asked to provide a blood sample to New York prison officials. The sample is loaded on to the state database.
The Gregory family, hearing of the new advances in DNA technology, contacts the Westchester County District Attorney's Office and requests that they reopen the case. A blood stain from the crime scene is tested for DNA. This sample is taking from the Gregory murder scene, is run through the state database. It matches the recently provided sample from the robber, Walter Gill. With the DNA match, Mr. Gill was indicted for the 20-year old murder. Prosecutors reported that when Mr. Gill was asked to provide a blood sample in January, he said that he knew at that moment he was in trouble. In fact, he was only half right, because taking his blood, testing it for DNA, uploading it in computers still did not solve the case. It wasn't until the crime scene evidence was tested that the Gregorys got some relief.
This story highlights the two sides of the DNA backlog issue. The Justice Department, as Senator Schumer says, has reported last year that 180,000 rape kits are sitting in police evidence lockers throughout the country. In the Department of Justice authorization bill we just did, language was included, with the help of the attorney general, to get a better handle on exactly where those rape kits are sitting. New York City alone we have in the neighborhood of 15,000 kits, just like the one that was described earlier. The NYPD's evidence lab in Queens is a vast chamber of unsolved crimes. I visited there recently, and it is chilling to see the boxes on ice stacked high on the shelves. Those kits represent 180,000 women nationwide whose cases haven't been solved.
In addition, there are more than 750,000 -- and that number rises every day -- of convicted offender DNA samples which need to be analyzed. That's why the DNA Backlog Elimination Act was introduced, to help families like those and families like the Gregorys.
The announcement we're making today, that additional funds will be immediately sent to cities and states all around the country to clear out this backlog, is very, very good news. Testing crime scene evidence can link more killers, like Walter Gill, to crime scenes around the country. It will put more criminals away; it will bring relief to countless victims.
It is money and money alone that is preventing more victims of taking advantage of DNA to solve their crimes.
But today I'm very proud to stand here with an attorney general who's committed to making sure those obstacles are removed.
Thank you very much.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I want to explicitly thank again these members of the United States Congress, without whose sensitivity and understanding and action regarding the reduction of the backlog of this program would be impossible. I'm grateful.
I'd be pleased to respond to questions. Yes?
Q Some lawmakers in Congress want the grant of money like this to be contingent upon states making post-conviction DNA testing available to prisoners for whom DNA testing wasn't available at the time of their trial. Do you support that? And where do you stand on people who are in jail claiming they're innocent being allowed to have DNA testing?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, the Congress fashioned this proposal, and this proposal reflects the will of the Congress, and this proposal is a good proposal that moves us forward. There may be other things that we can do. None of us has any desire to prolong any wrongful detention, and each of us wants to improve the quality of the justice system to make certain that we have the right outcome in criminal cases. The use of DNA will help that happen. I support this law as enacted, and obviously, this program is predicated upon the law as enacted and will provide this based on the terms of the law that the Congress passed last year.
Q What is the time frame for the states getting the money and beginning to get this backlog down to what you say you hope are days or weeks?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, the announced funding will be provided over the course of the next 18 months, and the time frame of backlog reduction is both a question of resource and perhaps a question of technology. As was indicated, I am directing the National Institute of Justice to evaluate the ability to automate the process of analyzing DNA. In the event we were to get an automated system, it would probably accelerate very substantially and give us a capacity that we don't currently have.
The unautomated analysis of DNA, once in the laboratory and once on the bench so that the processing takes place, is about a three-day process, but the shipment of the DNA to the laboratory, the return of the analyzed DNA, et cetera, back to the police agency makes it, right now, even in expeditious matters, something that could -- is going to take seven to 10 days. You can envisage a system with the right kind of -- if, in fact, we're able to achieve an automation, that would be much quicker.
So most of the backlog, if we're talking about a six-month backlog and all but 10 days of that is waiting in line -- and six months is the best situation. We've got other backlog that's much worse. So that's kind of the framework in which we find ourselves. We're pursuing a strategy to reduce the backlog, in accordance with the congressional directive, of providing more resources to improve our performance with current technology. We want to explore the ability to take that three-day period of something -- once something's on the laboratory bench, to compress that even substantially with automation. And once you get to automation, it may be possible to even reduce the travel and handling times.
REP. WEINER: And our House oversight committee will try to expedite the funds going out to the states.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Sir?
Q Just a point of clarification. More than 180,000 nationwide, those are untested rape cases? Do those include solved rapes, or just are they unsolved rapes? The other figure was more than 750,000 criminals who had been tested. Is that across the country? And that's people who were incarcerated who --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me try and address that. In terms of the 180,00 rape kits that have been untested, I think it may be possible that there are -- there has been conviction based on other evidence in some of that population. The 700(,000) to 800,000 of other tests that are to be run, some of those are detainees who will now be asked for samples, like the example of the individual in New York that was asked for a sample. Others of those are samples that come from crime scenes for which we have no suspects.
Now one of the things that you do in a setting like this is when you get the sample from crime scenes for which there are no suspects, if you can somehow cross-reference those against the samples that have been collected from people incarcerated, you may find that the people already incarcerated for other crimes are responsible for some of the no-suspect crimes, if you can cross-reference these. And ultimately that's an objective.
For me to go further than that with greater specificity is probably impossible. And you might want to check with some of the -- the folks with the real know-how are working on this in the Justice Department, may be able to answer that further.
Q And that 15,000 figure was just New York City or all of New York state? And also, how much does it cost the government to do one DNA sample?
REP. WEINER: Well, if I can -- and also, on your previous question -- the 180,000 number is probably dated at this point, for two reasons. One is that cities and localities have been actively testing on their own. The city of New York, for example, just entered into $14 million worth of contracts with private labs to help clear out their backlog.
The -- and also that number is dated for another tragic reason, and that is that the statute of limitations on many of these crimes has lapsed. And each time it does -- although I still believe you should test that evidence, each time it does, a potential victim has lost forever the opportunity to find justice.
The 15,000 number is also dated. That number is coming down.
The number of untested convicted offender samples is a number that is growing. Many of them, if not all of them, in all 50 states have given the sample, which is just saliva, which is what they test. Now it's in the queue that the attorney general described, to be tested. Many of those samples are relatively inexpensive -- a couple of hundred dollars to sample -- because they're going through a largely automated process.
Testing -- according to the NYPD, testing evidence can be a widely varying number, as much as a thousand to 2,000 dollars, because if you have very small amounts of degraded evidence on a carpet or on some underwear that has been sitting for years, it can very often require testing and retesting and retesting, which makes it much more expensive.
Q General Ashcroft, in Oklahoma we've seen widespread problems with the crime lab there. What assurance is there in this plan that as the states now rush ahead to try and make a dent in the backlog, that we're going to get accurate results, rather than sloppy results?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, we're going to ask states, when they receive these funds -- devote these funds to the purposes for which the Congress enacted this program. And I don't think anybody has an interest in taking a resource and having a sloppy devotion of the resource, so that none of the purposes are achieved.
We'll ask the states to do this with a sense of enhancing the criminal justice process. I believe they will. I --
Do you have any comments you'd like to make on that?
REP. GILMAN: Well, we'll try to make certain that the money when it's doled out is going to go to reliable laboratory people. And if there's any problem on it, Congress will provide the oversight.
STAFF: We have time for one more question.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Sure.
Q Attorney general, is this really enough money? Your 30 million may break the current log jam, but this is a vast new area. It's growing all the time. You're going to have log jam after log jam in the future. Any thoughts to maybe a much larger program --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, this is a substantial resource. I think the Congress is to be commended for focusing its energy on this resource, both to make sure that we have a higher level of confidence in those that are convicted and that we provide a basis for those who are innocent not to be inappropriately detained or withheld. And we're in a dynamic setting. As we would hope that we might be able to have a breakthrough when it comes to the kind of automation -- and Congressman Weiner has very clearly indicated that certain kinds of tests are subject to processing in one way, and other kinds of tests with degraded or very small amounts of DNA and less complete samples require other things. So if we can get -- if we move ourselves toward a more efficient approach with automation, we may be able to solve some of these problems. This is a major first step. It's a movement in the right direction by the Congress, which I'm happy to have the opportunity to implement at their direction. And I think it's something that we'll monitor and we'll see what happens in technology and see how these funds are used and their effectiveness, and then we'll collaborate with the Congress to see what else might be needed.
REP. WEINER: Can I offer one more point on that? One of the things that we need to keep in mind, as the experts in this building have told us over and over again, that criminals who rape and sexually abuse women are by -- very often naturally recidivist crimes. Very often you can do a couple of tests that wind up doing a couple of things:
One, solving several crimes all at once;
And two, putting a person behind bars that may have been more likely to commit several crimes in the future.
So we have to recognize that there is an ability. Early money really does help us prevent future crimes.
REP. GILMAN: And to address your question further, if there's a need for additional funds, I feel certain the Congress will address that properly.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I thank you all very much.