|In January 2000 New York City Police Commissioner,
Howard Safir, announced the reopening of 12,000 unsolved
rape cases that took place in the city within the last
five years in an effort to solve these crimes through DNA
testing (McQuillan). On January 13, 2000, C.J. Chivers
reported that an inmate being held at Riker's Island on a
charge of murder was also charged with a 1998 rape, based
upon DNA evidence collected at the time of the crime.
This was the first charge of its kind in New York State.
Since that time, a 31 year-old man in prison for burglary
has been charged with two 1999 rapes in Queens through
DNA evidence (Blair). The notorious East Side Rapist, who
remains at large and is known only through his DNA
profile, has been indicted for three of his 16 alleged
DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) is a genetic fingerprint. It is present in most human cells and is unique to all individuals, with the exception of identical twins ("What Every"). Many allege that in terms of proving guilt there is no other evidence as powerful or indisputable ("Governor"). Because it can be successfully retrieved from sources such as the sweat left by fingerprints, or in blood, semen and hair, the potential for the collection and use of DNA evidence in the prosecution of crimes is vast ("What Every"). DNA evidence can also link serial crimes and solve cases where the trail has long gone cold. Due to the amount of physiological matter that can be collected from the victim and the scene, DNA profiling is now used almost exclusively in the prosecution of rape, and other sexual assault crimes ("Sexual Assault" 3).
Within the past ten years, all states within the United States have passed legislation mandating the collection of DNA evidence for perpetrators of violent crimes. New York's 1994 legislation limited the collection of such evidence in sexual assault cases to those convicted only of rape/sodomy, all degrees, aggravated sexual abuse, 1st and 2nd degrees, incest and sexual assault, 1st degree ("Public Defense" 7). In 1999 it was expanded to include the collection of DNA evidence from all convicted rape and sex offenders, including those convicted of attempted crimes ("Public Defense" 7-8). At present this information is stored in a database maintained by New York State, which allows the DNA of suspected criminals, known criminals and evidence collected at crime scenes to be cross-referenced. Efforts are now underway to merge this information with a national databank, known as CODIS, which is maintained by the FBI. Like the New York State Database, CODIS can be accessed by law enforcement agencies electronically to search for potential matches. In 1998, it is estimated that CODIS, in conjunction with the National DNA Index System contained the DNA samples of 600,000 convicted felons and suspects. It has assisted in approximately 400 matches, either linking serial crimes or identifying a suspect ("Ensuring" 39-40).
Unfortunately DNA testing is a costly and time-consuming procedure. Of the 600,000 samples submitted to NDIS, the FBI reports less than half of these samples have been analyzed ("Ensuring" 39). There is also a backlog in the testing of DNA samples taken from crime scenes in New York City and of the 100,000 convicted felons in New York penitentiaries from whom DNA samples are now mandated, only 17,000 samples have been collected to date (Lewine). Under the new and expanded laws, it is estimated that 30,000 new samples will be collected each month by New York State, further challenging the State's ability to quickly test the samples and database the resulting profiles (Chen). The problem lies with the chronic under-funding of the state crime laboratories responsible for most DNA testing and to law enforcement agencies' growing awareness of the value of DNA evidence, and hence, increased collection of physiological fluids for DNA profiling (Weedn and Hicks 1). While there is great potential for the use of DNA evidence in investigating and subsequently prosecuting crimes, if this evidence sits untested its usefulness is limited.
Rape and sexual assault cases have historically had one of the lowest rates of conviction in the United States. Stephen Niezgoda, program manager of CODIS, has been quoted stating that only 40% of reported rapes are investigated by the police and of these rapes DNA samples are sent to labs for analysis only 9% of the time ("Sexual Assault" 3). DNA evidence, however, is set to revolutionize the police department's investigation of rape and sexual assault crimes. In New York, in the first three months of 2000 three cold rape cases have been solved by the use of DNA evidence alone. Making the collection of DNA evidence routine in the investigation of sex crimes could result in an even greater number of convictions.
New York State legislation does not require the collection of DNA evidence at crime scenes; however, nurses at emergency rooms have long been in the practice of taking swabs of semen and other fluids from rape victims when they present for treatment. This has resulted in the collection of 16,000 "rape kits" since 1988 (Chivers), 12,000 of which have been collected and stored by the NYPD within the past five years. Until recently police policy excluded the testing of DNA samples stored in rape kits in cases where there was no suspect (McQuillan). In 1998, however, Police Commissioner Howard Safir ordered the testing of all DNA samples collected from rape and sexual assault victims (McQuillan) and recently, shipped the 12,000 kits to private laboratories for testing (Chivers). Safir anticipates the testing will uncover a "treasure trove of evidence" (qtd. in McQuillan).
While DNA research continues to make advances and is increasingly used by law enforcement agencies, New York State's five-year statute of limitations on the prosecution of rape cases means that known rapists could be walking free, despite identification through DNA profiling. This has spawned the first indictment of a suspect based upon DNA identification alone in New York State. Following the lead of a Wisconson DA, the first in the country to indict an unknown suspect based upon his DNA profile (Chivers), New York City DA Robert Morgenthau indicted the "East Side Rapist" on March 15, 2000 (Italiano). The "East Side Rapist" is alleged to have raped at least 16 women in the past five years. His first known attack took place on March 19, 1995. Morgenthau indicates that once a suspect is indicted, a case cannot be closed until the suspect is apprehended, thereby ensuring that once caught, he can be prosecuted for all rapes he is alleged to have committed (Italiano).
Governor of New York State, George Pataki, has also been spearheading a campaign to eliminate the statue of limitations on rape and fifteen other crimes ("Governor"). Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, assistant provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoes the convictions of rape victims, criminologists, law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups when he finds "no valid reason that we should not prosecute when the evidence is intact, the complainant is alive and still complaining, and the rapist's identity can be known" (qtd. in Chivers). A bill extending the statute of limitations from five to ten years was introduced to the senate in January 1999. Although it passed the Senate on May 12, 1999, it died in the Assembly on January 5, 2000. It was ordered once again to a third Senate reading on February 14, 2000 and was starred on the calendar for further debate and a possible vote on April 3, 2000 ("S00974"). More recently, legislation was introduced to the Senate on March 13, 2000 to eliminate the Statute of Limitations on all class B violent felonies, including rape and sexual assault ("S07034").
Courts at all levels have recognized the validity of DNA tests in identifying suspects, with over 200 published decisions supporting the use of genetic evidence in the prosecution of criminal cases (Weedn and Hicks 1). In 1997 DNA evidence was submitted in approximately 17,000 cases to prove either the guilt or innocence of a suspect (Weedn and Hicks 1). The biggest hurdle to overcome in the use of DNA testing remains the ability to analyze the data quickly, so that the evidence is available for use when the case goes to trial.
The use of DNA evidence in the prosecution of rapists and other sex offenders is only in its infancy. New York State's DNA databank has been operational only since 1999 (Chivers) and the Combined DNA Index System has been operational only since 1998. This year the power of DNA profiling in linking serial crimes and identifying suspects has been shown to be great. As technological advances decrease the time it takes to analyze DNA and as more samples are stored in databanks for cross-referencing, the success in achieving convictions through DNA profiling can only increase. It is changing the way that law enforcement agencies have historically treated and investigated instances of rape and sexual assault and is already resulting in more detailed police investigations and greater rates of conviction.
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Sec. Metropolitan Desk. New York Times on the Web
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Chivers, C.J. "In First Case From DNA Bank,
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McQuillan, Alice. "Reopening Rape Cases: Cops Looking at DNA." Daily News. 04 Jan. 2000 sec. News and Views: Crime File. Daily News Online Archives. On-line. 8 Apr. 2000 <http://www.nydailynews.com/2000-01-04/News_and_Views/Crime_File/a-52405.asp>
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New York State Assembly. "New York State Bill S07034" On-line. 15 May 2000 <http://assembly.state.ny.us/cgi-bin/showbill?billnum=S07034>
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