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California Cold Hit DNA Program Cracks Baffling Cases

December 18, 2002  | 

In the last few years, California cops and prosecutors have scored 200 cold hits from DNA databases. That sounds impressive, but during the same time period, Virginia scored 1,000. California is clearly lagging behind many other states when it comes to exploiting 21st-century forensic technology, but that may be changing.

One of the reasons that California has been slow to reap the rewards of cold hits--matches between DNA found at crime scenes and profiles of convicted criminals in a federal data-base--has been a legal challenge. But the lawsuit failed.

Now the Golden State's more than 600 Death Row inmates will have their DNA sampled. Also the authori-ties are now sampling any individual convicted of a major crime, including violent felonies, first-degree burglary, etc.

All of these samples are now being added to the FBI's DNA database, and the results have been impressive. In Sacramento County alone, three homi-cides and six rapes have been solved through cold hits in the last six months. In addition, California now has the largest state database of con-vict DNA in the nation.

Of course, having the samples from convicts is only half of the equation. Agencies have to hold onto crime scene samples and rape kits to make the system work. And that's easier said than done.

The state attorney general's office created a program two years ago to prompt labs and investigators to pur-sue cold hits. Some $50 million was allocated for the the three-year initia-tive with a goal of processing 30,000 rape kits and other biological evidence from crime scenes. State officials later cut the funding to $28.5 million after discovering that some agencies had destroyed the biological evidence to save space. In the most celebrated case of DNA destruction, the Los Angeles Police Department trashed 1,100 rape kits. Detectives ordered the evidence destroyed in all cases that were more than six years old, not realizing that the California statute of limitations for rape had been extended to 10 years in 2001.

Under the cold hit program, crime labs can petition the attorney general's office for funds to hire criminalists and buy equipment for DNA analysis. Crime lab directors and prosecutors say that's good on one level, but their major concern is processing the evi-dence before the money runs out. The program ends next October, and un-less it is renewed, the labs will be forced to look for another funding source or they will have to trim staff.

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