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17,698 DNA Profiles Missing from Wisconsin Database

by Matt Clarke

In September 2009, Wisconsin officials discovered that the profiles of 17,698 convicted felons were missing from the state’s DNA database.

An investigation into Milwaukee serial killer suspect Walter E. Ellis revealed that his DNA was not in Wisconsin’s 128,065-profile database, though it should have been. An audit later found that about 13% of the profiles that should be in the database were missing. The omitted profiles included those of over 400 convicted sex offenders and around 10,360 felons who were no longer under correctional supervision.

Wisconsin state law requires the collection of a DNA sample from all convicted felons; the sample is used to generate a DNA profile for the state database. The 17,698 missing profiles spanned a time period from 1993 to 2009.

“Our charge is to get samples from everyone, and that’s where we are,” said John Dipko, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC). “We are also working as quickly as possible to go after and get DNA for people who are no longer under supervision.”

The DOC set up a task force, consisting primarily of retired law enforcement officials, charged with collecting DNA samples from the felons whose DNA profiles were missing from the database. The state’s Office of Justice Assistance’s Sex Offender Apprehension and Felony Initiative was assigned to assist the task force, which includes representatives from the Badger State Sheriff’s Association and the DOC.

“We have to identify and determine the existing failures in the system that caused the problems today,” said Chuck Cole, a former assistant police chief who is heading the task force.

Meanwhile, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to require defendants arrested on felony charges to provide a cheek-swab DNA sample at the time they are booked. The bill (2009 Senate Bill 336) was sponsored by state Representative Ann Hraychuck and state Senator Shelia Harsdorf. Harsdorf claimed the legislation will ultimately save money by allowing suspects to be identified more quickly.

Proponents of the bill note that 21 states already have DNA-at-arrest statutes. New Mexico enacted such a law in 2007; about an hour later, an arrested person’s DNA was taken which matched an open murder case.

Critics contend that taking DNA samples upon arrest would mean taking DNA from people who have not yet been charged with a crime and may never be convicted. Further, obtaining so many DNA samples may cause a backlog at the state crime lab. The bill provides that people who are not criminally charged or are found not guilty have the right to request expungement of their DNA profiles from the database.

Of course, if Wisconsin is incapable of collecting the DNA profiles already mandated by state law, one has to wonder how effective officials will be in expunging DNA samples when requested pursuant to state law. It seems unlikely that a task force would be set up to make sure such expungements are properly performed.

There has been no action taken on Senate Bill 336 by the Wisconsin legislature since December 2009. As of March 23, 2010, state officials said they had collected about 6,315 DNA samples that had been missing from the database, mostly from felons who were still in prison or on probation or parole.

Sources: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel,

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