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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions S. 152

Location: Washington, DC


S. 152. A bill to assess the extent of the backlog in DNA analysis of rape kit samples, and to improve investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases with DNA evidence; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise along with the distinguished Senior Senator from Pennsylvania, Senator SPECTER, to introduce the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act of 2003, a bill that guarantees prompt justice to victims of sexual assault crimes through DNA technology. This bill is not new to my colleagues. Last session, I introduced the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act with Senators SPECTER, CANTWELL, CLINTON, and SCHUMER. The bill was voted favorably out of the Judiciary Committee with the key support of my good friend across the aisle, Senator SPECTER. And in September, with twenty co-sponsors, Republicans and Democrats, the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act unanimously passed the Senate. Regrettably, our House counterparts were not able to act so quickly or decisively on a DNA bill, so I am back to re-introduce the bill and to urge quick passage of the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act of 2003. I am pleased that, once again, this bill has strong bipartisan support and I look forward to working with my good friend from Utah, the distinguished Senior Senator, Senator HATCH, in acting promptly in marking up this bill when he assumes chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee.

Promoting and supporting DNA technology as a crime-fighting tool is not a new endeavor for me. A provision of my 1994 Crime Bill created the Combined DNA Index System, called "CODIS", which is an electronic database of DNA profiles, much like the FBI's fingerprint database. CODIS includes two kinds of DNA information, convicted offender DNA samples and DNA from crime scenes. CODIS uses the two indexes to generate investigative leads in crimes where biological evidence is recovered from the scene. In essence, CODIS facilitates the DNA match. And once that match is made a crime is solved because of the incredible accuracy and durability of DNA evidence.

99.9 percent—that is how accurate DNA evidence is. 1 in 30 billion, those are the odds someone else committed a crime if a suspect's DNA matches evidence at the crime scene. 20 or 30 years, that is how long DNA evidence from a crime scene lasts.

Just ten years ago DNA analysis of evidence could have cost thousands of dollars and taken months; now testing one sample costs $40 and can take days. Ten years ago forensic scientists needed blood the size of a bottle cap, now DNA testing can be done on a sample the size of a pinhead. The changes in DNA technology are remarkable, and mark a sea change in how we can fight crime, particularly sexual assault crimes.

The FBI reports that since 1998 the national DNA database has helped put away violent criminals in 6,257 investigations in 40 States. How? By matching the DNA crime evidence to the DNA profiles of offenders. Individual success stories of DNA "cold hits" in sexual assault cases make these numbers all too real.

Just last month, Alabama authorities charged a man in the rape of an 85-year-old woman almost ten years ago after he was linked to the case by a DNA sample he was compelled to submit while in prison on unrelated charges.

In Colorado Springs, CO, a trial will soon begin of a man accused of at least fourteen rapes and sexual assaults. Due to the national DNA database, prosecutors were able to trace the defendant to rapes and assaults that occurred in Colorado, California, Arizona, Nevada and Oklahoma between 1999 and 2002.

In Florida, Kellie Green was brutally attacked and raped in the laundry room of her apartment complex. Because of lack of funds, her rape kit sat on the shelf for three years until a persistent detective had it analyzed. The evidence matched the profile of a man already incarcerated for beating and raping a woman 6 weeks before Kellie.

Or take, for example, a 1996 case in St. Louis where two young girls were abducted from bus stops and raped at opposite ends of the city. The police were unable to identify a suspect. In 1999, the police decided to re-run the DNA testing to develop new leads. In January 2000, the DNA database matched the case to a 1999 rape case, and police were able to identify the perpetrator.

Last spring, the New York Police Department arrested a man linked to the rape of a woman years ago. In 1997, a woman was horribly beaten, robbed and raped, there were no suspects. Five years later, the perpetrator submitted a DNA sample as a condition of probation after serving time for burglary. The DNA sample matched the DNA from the 1997 rape. Crime solved, streets safer.

Undoubtedly, DNA matching by comparing evidence gathered at the crime scene with offender samples entered on the national DNA database has proven to be the deciding factor in solving stranger sexual assault cases—it has revolutionized the criminal justice system, and brought closure and justice for victims.

In light of the past successes and the future potential of DNA evidence, the reports about the backlog of untested rape kits and other crime scene evidence waiting in police warehouses are simply shocking. It is a national problem, plaguing both urban and rural areas, that deserves national attention and solutions. One woman, in particular, has reminded State and Federal lawmakers that we cannot ignore even one rape kit sitting on a shelf gathering dust, Debbie Smith. In 1989, Mrs. Smith was brutally taken from her home and raped. There were no known suspects and Mrs. Smith lived in fear of her attacker's return. Six years later, the Virginia crime laboratory discovered a DNA match between the rape scene evidence and a State prisoner's DNA sample. Mrs. Smith had her first moment of real security and closure and since then, she has traveled the country to advocate on behalf of assault victims and champion the use of DNA to fight sexual assault. I am pleased that the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act of 2003 bears a provision entitled, "The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grants."

Today I am introducing legislation, "The DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act of 2003", to strengthen the existing Federal DNA regime as an effective crimefighting tool. My bill addresses five pressing issues.

First, exactly how bad is the backlog of untested rape kits nationwide? A 1999 government report found over 180,000 rape kits were sitting, untested, on the storage shelves of police department and crime laboratories all across the country.

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While recent press reports estimate that the number today is approaching 500,000 untested rape kits, I am told that there are no current, accurate numbers of the backlog. Behind every single one of those rape kits is a victim who deserves recognition and justice. Accordingly, my legislation would require the Attorney General to survey law enforcement agencies nationwide to assess the extent of the backlog of rape kits waiting to undergo DNA testing. To combat the problem of rape kit backlogs, it is imperative to know the real numbers, and how best to utilize Federal resources.

Second, how can existing Federal law be strengthened to make sure that State crime labs have the funds for the critical DNA analysis needed to solve sex assault cases? To fight crime most effectively, we must both test rape kits and enter convicted offender DNA samples into the DNA database. There has been explosive growth in the use of forensic sciences by law enforcement. A government survey found that in 2000 alone, crime labs received 31,000 cases—a 47 percent increase from almost 21,000 cases in 1999. In addition, the labs received 177,000 convicted offender DNA samples, an almost 77 percent increase from 100,242 samples in 1999.

The backlog in DNA testing is found all across the country. Last month a Michigan newspaper reported that its State police forensic unit is expected to have a 10-year backlog of items in need of DNA testing. Similar news reports are elsewhere. The Florida crime lab system is facing a backlog of more than 2,400 rape, murder and assault and burglary cases with DNA evidence waiting for testing. In North Carolina, up to 20,000 rape kit tests sit on evidence shelves because the lab does not have the resources to conduct timely DNA testing.

Many crime laboratories report personnel shortages in the face of this overwhelming work. According to a government survey, on average, there are 6 employees in a State crime lab, a lab that must not only conduct DNA testing for hundreds of cases, but also run forensic tests on blood, footprints or ballistic evidence.

The bill I'm introducing would: 1. Increase current funding levels to both test rape kits and to process and upload offender samples; and 2. allow local governments to apply directly to the Justice Department for these grants. I thank my colleagues Senators KOHL and DEWINE who began this effort with the DNA Backlog Elimination Act of 2000 and acknowledge their ongoing interest in this area.

Third, what assistance does the FBI need to keep up with the crushing number of DNA samples which need to be tested or stored in the national database? I am told that the current national DNA database, "CODIS", is nearing capacity of convicted offender DNA samples. My bill would provide funds to the FBI to 1. Upgrade the national DNA computer database to handle the huge projections of samples; and 2. process and upload Federal convicted offender DNA samples into the database.

Efforts to include more Federal and State convicted offenders in our database just makes plain sense to fight crime. We know that sexual assault is a crime with one of the highest rates of recidivism, and that many sexual assault crimes are committed by those with past convictions for other kinds of crime. Their DNA samples from prior convictions help law enforcement efforts enormously. We cannot wait; the 2001 FBI crime records show that one forcible rape occurs every 5.8 minutes, and the most recent reports from the first six months of 2002 indicate a 1.8 percent increase in the number of rapes as compared to 2001 statistics.

Fourth, what additional tools are needed to help treat victims of sexual assault? One group that understands the importance of gathering credible DNA evidence are forensic sexual assault examiners, who are sensitive to the trauma of this horrible crime and make sure that patients are not revictimized in the aftermath. These programs should be in each and every emergency room and play an integral role in police departments to bridge the gap between the law and the medicine.
I first recognized the importance of sexual assault nurse examiners in solving rape cases when I authored the Violence Against Women Act. A key provision in the Violence Against Women Act requires the Attorney General to evaluate and recommend standards for training and practice for licensed health care professionals performing sexual assault forensic exams. So I knew that any DNA bill aimed at ending sexual assault must include resources for sexual forensic examiners, and not just one type. My bill ensures that sexual forensic nurses, doctors, and response teams are all eligible for assistance.
Tapping the power of DNA requires well-trained law enforcement who know how to collect and preserve DNA evidence from the crime scene. Training should be a matter of course for all law enforcement. No rape kit evidence will lead to the perpetrator if the DNA evidence is collected improperly.

The DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act would create a new grant program to carry out sexual assault examiner programs and training. And it would train law enforcement personnel and prosecutors in the handling of sexual assault cases, including drug-facilitated assaults, and the collection and use of DNA samples for use as forensic evidence at trial.

Fifth, what can be done to ensure that sexual assault offenders who cannot be identified by their victim are nevertheless brought to justice?

Profound injustice is done to rape victims when delayed DNA testing leads to a "cold hit" after the statute of limitations has expired. For example, Jeri Elster was brutally raped in her California home, and for years the police were unable to solve the crime. Seven years later, DNA from the rape matched a man in jail for an unrelated crime. Yet the rapist was never charged, convicted or sentenced because California's statute of limitations had expired the previous year.

The DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act of 2003 would change current law to authorize Federal "John Doe/DNA indictments" that will permit Federal prosecutors to issue an indictment identifying an unknown defendant by his DNA profile within the five year statute of limitations. Once outstanding, the DNA indictment would permit prosecution at anytime once there was a DNA "cold hit" through the national DNA database system.

John Doe/DNA indictments strike the right balance between encouraging swift and efficient investigations, recognizing the durability and credibility of DNA evidence and preventing an injustice if a cold hit happens years after the crime. Criminal law must catch up with DNA technology without the wholesale eradication of prevailing statutes of limitations.

I started looking at the issue of improved prosecution of sexual assault crimes almost two decades ago when I began drafting the Violence Against Women Act. The DNA Sexual Justice Act of 2003 is the next step, a way to connect the dots between the extraordinary strides in DNA technology and my commitment to ending violence against women. We must ensure that justice delayed is not justice denied.

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