Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions - S. 1700

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: Oct. 1, 2003
Location: Washington, DC


S. 1700. A bill to eliminate the substantial backlog of DNA samples collected from crime scenes and convicted offenders, to improve and expand the DNA testing capacity of Federal, State, and local crime laboratories, to increase research and development of new DNA testing technologies, to develop new training programs regarding the collection and use of DNA evidence, to provide post-conviction testing of DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent, to improve the performance of counsel in State capital cases, and for other purposes; to the Committee on the Judiciary.


Sec. 331. Increased Compensation in Federal Cases. Increases the maximum amount of damages that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims may award against the United States in cases of unjust imprisonment from a flat $5,000 to $50,000 per year in non-capital cases, and $100,000 per year in capital cases.

Sec. 332. Sense of Congress Regarding Compensation in State Death Penalty Cases. This section expresses the sense of Congress that States should provide reasonable compensation to any person found to have been unjustly convicted of an offense against the State and sentenced to death.

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise along with the distinguished senior Senator from Utah, Senator HATCH and several others of my colleagues, Senators SPECTOR, LEAHY, DEWINE, and FEINSTEIN, to introduce the Advancing Justice
Through DNA Act, a bill that harnesses the power of DNA to give prompt justice to victims of sexual assault crimes and to free the wrongly convicted. This bill takes every component of DNA technology and makes it accessible and more useful to Federal, State and local law enforcement, to prosecutors and defense attorneys, to medical personnel and to victims of crime.

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.

Ninety-nine.nine percent—that is how accurate DNA evidence is. One in 30 billion—those are the odds someone else committed a crime if a suspect's DNA matches evidence at the crime scene. Twenty or 30 years—that is how long DNA evidence from a crime scene lasts.

Just 10 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 over 9,000 investigations in 50 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 year, Alabama authorities charged a man in the rape of an 85-year-old woman almost 10 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, prosecutors brought to trial a case against a man accused of at least 14 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.

Or take for example a 1996 case in St. Louis were 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. A laboratory expert testified that Virginia has a 48 percent hit rate because the State collects samples from all convicted felons and aggressively analyzes crime scene evidence with no backlog. This means that almost 1 out of every 2 violent crimes could be solved by the national DNA database.

In light of the past successes and the future potential of DNA evidence, the reported number of untested rape kits and other crime scene evidence waiting in police warehouses is simply shocking—300,000 to 500,000. It is a national problem, plaguing both urban and rural areas, that deserves national attention and solutions. Last year, 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. The Florida crime lab system is facing a backlog of more than 2,400 rape, murder and assault and burglary cases waiting for DNA testing. South Carolina has 10,000 untested samples from convicted offenders. In June 2003, the New Jersey police department reported that over 1,200 criminal cases—most of them sexual assault cases—were waiting for DNA analysis.
Behind every single one of those rape kits is a victim who deserves recognition and justice.

One woman in particular has reminded State and Federal lawmakers that we cannot ignore even one rape kit sitting on a shelf gathering dust. That woman is Debbie Smith. In 1989, Mrs. Smith was taken from her home and brutally 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. That cold hit gave Mrs. Smith 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.

Today's bill provides over $755 five years to eliminate the backlog in rape kits and other crime scene evidence, eliminate the backlog of convicted offender samples awaiting DNA testing, and improve State laboratory capacity to conduct DNA testing. I am pleased that the backlog elimination grant program in the Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act is entitled, "The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grants." It is a fitting tribute. I also want to take a moment to thank my colleagues Senators KOHL and DEWINE who began this effort with the DNA Backlog Elimination Act of 2000, and acknowledge their ongoing commitment.

But the DNA testing is only useful if the crime scene evidence is carefully collected and preserved. Towards that end, the
Advancing Justice through DNA Technology Act creates two important grant programs: 1. a $62.5 million DNA training and education grant program for law enforcement, correctional personnel and court officers; and 2. a $50 million grant program to provide training, education and assistance to sexual assault forensic examiner programs, often known as SANE or SART programs.

The Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act is a natural extension to the Violence Against Women Act, which 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. This bill ensures that sexual forensic nurses, doctors, and response teams are all eligible for assistance. These program should be in each and every emergency room to bridge the gap between the law and the medicine.

Today's bill also makes two small, but important, amendments to the Violence Against Women Act. First, it amends the law to include legal assistance for victims of dating violence, and it amends the eligibility criteria for discretionary programs so that tribal domestic violence and sexual assault coalitions can directly receiving grants funds, including those funds unreleased from past fiscal years.

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.

I am also gratified that this legislation includes the Innocence Protection Act, which I cosponsored last year, and which passed the Judiciary Committee. I have long advocated in this Committee for the changes that it will implement.

The Innocence Protection Act will immeasurably improve the administration of justice in our legal system, particularly where justice is most important, and where we can least afford to make mistakes—imposition of the death penalty.

I advocate for this bill not as an opponent of the death penalty looking to curtail it, but as a supporter of the death penalty who authored the first constitutional federal death penalty law after the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.

But we who support the death penalty also have a duty to ensure that it is fairly administered. The advent of DNA testing has provided us with a wealth of opportunities to make certain that we are prosecuting the right people. Just as we use DNA to help prosecutions, we must make testing available to those who can use it to prove their innocence. This legislation makes post-conviction testing to federal inmates who assert that they did not commit the crime for which they have been imprisoned. It also incentivizes States to take similar measures to ensure that individuals have a proper opportunity to prove their innocence. It also mandates proper preservation of DNA evidence so that the DNA can be tested if appropriate.

As for competent counsel in death penalty cases, nobody can look me in the eye and tell me that our system for representation in capital cases works as it should. This bill will take a big step toward fixing that by providing money for grants to States to improve their systems of representation, on both the prosecution and defense side, in capital cases.

Our goal must be an error-free system of criminal justice. To err is human, but it should never be acceptable. Our job is to do all we can to eliminate errors in the criminal justice system and to see to it that a lack of resources does not delay bringing rapists and murderers to justice. This bill means we are doing our job.

I would be remiss if I did not pause to thank some of the many people who have helped bring about the introduction of this bill. In particular, I wish to thank Senators HATCH and LEAHY, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for devoting so much of their time and effort to developing this legislation. Similarly, Chairman
SENSENBRENNER and Ranking Member CONYERS have worked with us every step of the way to get this bill done. In addition, Senators SPECTER, DEWINE and FEINSTEIN, and Congressmen DELAHUNT and COBLE, among others, have spent countless hours contributing their ideas to this bill. I wish to thank all of these members for their leadership on this matter.

Mr. HATCH. Mr. President, will the Senator from Delaware yield for a question?

Mr. BIDEN. Of course.

Mr. HATCH. Mr. President, it is my understanding that this legislation makes certain of its grants contingent on States providing a process for post-conviction testing available. For those States that already have enacted a statute providing such testing, that statute must ensure a meaningful process for resolving a claim of actual innocence. As I understand it, almost all of the State statutes already in existence, including those of Ohio, Utah, Delaware and Pennsylvania, would pass muster and would qualify for the grants at issue. Is that the understanding of the Senator from Delaware?

Mr. BIDEN. Yes, I thank the Senator from Utah for his question, and wholeheartedly agree with his understanding of this provision. I believe all of the drafters of this legislation are in agreement that most of the States that already have passed statutes, except for the few that limit post-conviction DNA testing to capital crimes, would pass muster. For example, even if a State's statute differs from the Federal law by imposing a meaningful time limit for filing of applications for testing, or excluding guilty pleas from eligibility, it would qualify. Specifically, Utah, Delaware, Ohio and Pennsylvania, among others, under their statutes, or the re-enactment of those statutes where they have expired, would be eligible for such grants.
However, States that have not yet enacted a statute would be required to enact a statute, or follow a rule, regulation or practice, that met a higher standard—the statute, rule, regulation or practice would need to be "comparable" to the Federal law in order for the State to qualify for the grants. I see the Senator from Pennsylvania on the Floor. I would be happy to yield to the distinguished Senator to hear his thoughts on this matter.

Mr. SPECTER. I thank the Senator for yielding time. I would just say that I completely agree with the understanding of the Senators from Delaware and Utah on this.

Mr. HATCH. Would the Senator yield?

Mr. BIDEN. It would be my pleasure.

Mr. HATCH. I would just like to make clear that the understanding of the Senator from Delaware comports completely with mine.

Mr. SPECTER. Would the Senator yield for another question?

Mr. BIDEN. Of course.

Mr. SPECTER. As the Senator knows, a second requirement for States to qualify for these grants is that—whether by State statute, State or local rule, regulation or practice—they preserve biological evidence in a reasonable way. Do the Senators from Delaware and Utah agree with me that States would qualify so long as they preserve evidence in a way sufficient to permit the testing provided for in their State statutes? For example, if a State law provides a three year time limit on post-conviction DNA testing, a practice of preserving evidence throughout those three years would qualify as "reasonable" under this legislation. Thus, for example, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio and Utah would qualify.

Mr. BIDEN. Yes, that has been, and remains, my understanding.

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