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Incomplete DNA Databases Result in Tragic Consequences

A review by the Associated Press has found that state crime lab databanks are missing thousands of DNA samples. The missing samples and backlogs in processing those that have been collected raise questions concerning serious crimes that otherwise might have been prevented.

“If you got missing samples, some of those people are out there raping your wives and abducting and murdering your children,” said J.E. Harding, a former Charlottesville, Virginia police captain. Harding discovered missing DNA samples in Virginia’s database while searching for a serial rapist.

Over the past several decades legislatures in 47 states have enacted laws requiring convicted felons to provide DNA samples; in 21 states, people arrested for murder, sex crimes or other offenses are required to supply samples even though they have not been convicted. The FBI’s National DNA Index System, which draws from state databanks, held about 7.4 million samples as of September 2009.

State officials lay the blame for failing to collect required DNA samples on confusing legislation and a lack of coordination among government agencies – plus the costs involved in collecting and processing the samples.

One high-profile case involving a serial killer has focused attention on missing DNA samples. In September 2009, Wisconsin resident Walter E. Ellis, 49, was linked to the murders of seven women – a killing spree that spanned a 21-year period.

Under Wisconsin law, a DNA sample should have been taken from Ellis while he served a 5-year prison term following a 1998 conviction for reckless endangerment. But when DNA was collected from the body of one of his victims in 2003, no matches were found – apparently because he had convinced another prisoner to submit a DNA sample for him. As a result Ellis was able to elude detection, and in 2007 he allegedly strangled and killed his seventh victim.

That didn’t stop the police from making arrests, they just didn’t arrest Ellis. Two other men were charged in homicide cases subsequently attributed to Ellis – Curtis McCoy was prosecuted for a 1994 murder but acquitted at trial, while Chaunte Ott served more than 12 years of a life sentence for killing a 16-year-old girl. Ott was released in January 2009 after DNA tests determined that semen found at the crime scene was not his. It was later matched to Ellis.
Following the discovery of Ellis’ missing DNA sample, Wisconsin officials conducted an audit that revealed the state was missing 12,000 samples from current and former prisoners. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.44].

The Associated Press review found that 27 states were either missing samples or unable to determine if they had been collected in every case they should have been. Illinois alone was missing DNA samples from 50,000 offenders [See: PLN, June 2010, p.19], while 8,400 were missing in Virginia and 2,000 in Colorado. Although the total number of missing samples nationwide is unknown, the National Institute of Justice estimated in 2003 that around 1 million remained uncollected.

Compounding the problem is a huge number of already-collected DNA samples waiting to be processed. At least 13 states are experiencing significant backlogs of samples that have not yet been added to their databanks; a 2007 estimate put the number of unprocessed samples at between 600,000 and 708,000 nationwide.

Delays in processing DNA samples have been linked to a number of crimes that may have been prevented. Robert N. Patton, Jr. of Columbus, Ohio committed 37 rapes over a period of 15 years. While serving time for burglary in 2001, Patton submitted his DNA to authorities. However, the sample was not entered into the DNA database until 2004; two days later, Patton raped another woman. He had committed 13 sexual assaults after his DNA sample was taken.
If Patton’s DNA “had been processed in a timely fashion, he never would have gotten to me or gotten to any of the others,” said one of his victims. Patton was convicted and sentenced to 68 years in prison.

Federal officials had a DNA sample for Delmer Smith III, a rape and home invasion suspect in Florida, but had not entered it into a DNA databank due to a backlog. Smith provided his DNA while serving a federal sentence for bank robbery; by the time authorities found his sample and tested it, he had reportedly committed at least a dozen violent crimes, including murder and sexual assault.

According to a March 2009 audit by the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Justice, one in six state crime labs reported cases “where additional crimes may have been committed by an offender while that offender’s DNA sample was part of the backlog in their state.”

Walter Ellis is scheduled to go to trial on multiple first-degree murder charges in February 2011. Chaunte Ott, who served over a dozen years for a homicide attributed to Ellis, was awarded $25,000 in compensation by Wisconsin’s Claims Board in May 2010. He is also pursuing a federal lawsuit against police investigators, and has subpoenaed the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and state crime lab. See: Ott v. City of Milwaukee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:09-cv-00870-RTR.

Sources:, Associated Press,,,,

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Related legal case

Ott v. City of Milwaukee