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DNA Bank Helps Find Suspects in Rape Cases

Crime: Police have made arrests based on evidence matched with samples in a state database containing genetic profiles of felons.

February 26, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A statewide DNA database of convicted violent criminals is beginning to pay off: Police are making arrests based on genetic matches in rape cases once thought to be unsolvable.

Arrests have been made in Los Angeles and Santa Rosa and in Tehama County in cases in which police had no suspects until evidence collected in "rape-kit" exams of the victims was compared with the database kept by the state attorney general.

Santa Rosa police arrested an ex-convict two weeks ago in connection with the rape of a mentally impaired woman. His DNA was on file because he was convicted of attempted murder in 1992.

Last week, a sex offender at Folsom Prison was charged in the 1984 rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl in Tehama County in Northern California. In Los Angeles, a Texas prisoner is being charged with robbery and rape.

The alleged attackers had not been considered as suspects in any of the cases until the DNA matches were made.

In San Diego, prosecutors will meet this week to map out plans to help all police departments in the county use the state's Convicted Felon DNA Databank in sex-crime cases. Priority is being given to cases that are several years old.

Although the DNA file is also assisting in finding suspects in other kinds of cases, police and prosecutors believe it will be particularly useful in so-called stranger-rape cases.

Eighty percent of rapes, researchers say, are committed by someone who is known to the victim. But cases in which the rapist is unknown to the victim can be particularly difficult to solve because the victim may be too traumatized to give an adequate description of the attacker.

In some jurisdictions, fewer than one-third of rape cases result in convictions. Possibly because of the odds against catching a rapist, rape is one of the most underreported crimes.

Greg Thompson, assistant district attorney in San Diego County, said use of the databank represents a major shift in the use of DNA.

In the past, Thompson said, DNA has been used to determine the guilt or innocence of a known suspect. Now, he said, it will be used to identify suspects.

"We are going to start seeing DNA used to solve crimes the same way fingerprints are used," he said.

Under a 1986 California law and a 1998 amendment, anyone convicted of a sexual assault or other violent crime must provide blood and saliva samples. DNA profiles are extracted and kept in the state database in Berkeley.

The database was begun in 1994, and the first large-scale comparison between DNA profiles kept in the database and evidence supplied by police was done Jan. 29.

"This is going to be an awesome tool for making arrests in unbreakable cases," said Mike Musgrove, a police detective in Santa Rosa.

The database now has about 21,000 profiles, and there is a backlog of several times that many that have yet to be cataloged. There are also plans to link the California database with those kept by other states.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has pledged to make expansion of the DNA database a major goal.

Thirty-two states have DNA databases, and 15 are considering the idea. Most states include burglary in the list of offenses that mandate a blood and saliva sample, and seven states collect samples from all felons.

As part of the DNA program, the state has increased the statute of limitations for crimes where suspects are identified solely by DNA. That provision passed its first legal test Friday in Sacramento County Superior Court in a challenge brought by attorneys for an accused rapist.

Also last week, Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) submitted a bill, AB 673, to expand the categories of criminals required to provide the samples to include those convicted of residential burglary, first-degree robbery, arson and carjacking.

The bill is supported by police and prosecutors but criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes DNA databases as a violation of 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Dale Kelly Bankhead, an official with the ACLU chapter in San Diego, said the group would, at a minimum, like to require police to destroy samples once the DNA profile is extracted.

The blood and saliva samples, Bankhead noted, can be used to retrieve genetic and medical history about the individuals and their families.

"We don't believe that kind of information belongs in a government database," she said. "Just because you have a relative convicted of a crime doesn't mean your family medical history deserves to be on some government computer disk."

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