THE HONORABLE DEBORAH J. DANIELS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
OFFICE OF JUSTICE PROGRAMS
29TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE
NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR VICTIM ASSISTANCE
MONDAY, AUGUST 25, 2003
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Good morning! I’m delighted to be here at what I believe to be the only annual national conference focusing on victims issues. I’m pleased that the Office of Justice Programs, through our Office for Victims of Crime, is helping to support this important forum. And I’m happy to have the opportunity to share the podium this morning with OVC Director John Gillis, whose vision and leadership guide our federal efforts to fulfill the promise of crime victims rights- and with your President, Jeannette Adkins.
I also want to thank NOVA for its almost three decades of leadership in advocating on behalf of victims, fighting for victims’ rights in our national and state legislatures, and working in partnership with our Office for Victims of Crime. Together, you’re helping to ensure that victims receive the assistance and compensation they need and deserve, to help them to in some measure recover from the devastating trauma of crime.
These issues have long been both a professional and a personal interest of mine. When I served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, and before that as Chief Counsel to the prosecuting attorney in Indianapolis, I spent years advocating for crime victims. I worked to strengthen state laws, increase local victim assistance resources, and provide training to law enforcement officers on victims’ issues.
I had the privilege then, in the 1980s, of working with NOVA, which provided invaluable assistance to our efforts. NOVA’s example inspired me to remain active in victims’ issues long after my years as a prosecutor – for example, helping to establish much-needed transitional housing for victims of domestic violence in my home town of Indianapolis.
I am now privileged to have had the opportunity to return to the Department of Justice, where I’m working closely with John Gillis and victim advocates to focus our many resources on reducing crime, assisting its victims, and holding its perpetrators accountable. And I want to assure all of you that we will continue, as the Attorney General has said, to “put victims first.”
We are excited about the possibility of the Congress finally passing a Constitutional amendment to secure victims’ rights. As you know, this Administration has worked hard to develop legislative language and encourage its passage, and John has spent a good deal of his personal time on this issue. But we both are awed by the lengthy personal commitment of one of the real champions of that effort who is also here with us today- Steve Twist. We remain hopeful of success in the current Congressional session.
In an equally positive note, I have good news to report to you today. Yesterday we released the results of our 2002 National Crimes Victims Survey, which found that our nation’s crime rates are at their lowest levels in 30 years. Rates for all crimes are down, even murder.
But while this news is a cause for celebration, our work is not over. Although crimes rates are down, every one of those victimizations that still occur create trauma and sadness for many people -- not only the victims themselves, but also their families, friends, and members of the community. To further reduce victimization, we must put energy into both helping these crime victims and in continuing to reduce the chances that others will be hurt.
After 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft proclaimed a sea change at the Department of Justice– from after-the-fact investigation to prevention. We must initiate this plan on all fronts– not just on terrorism, but on traditional crime as well.
I’d like to talk to you today about a major new initiative that I believe will significantly reduce crime and improve community safety by identifying criminal offenders, getting them off our streets, providing justice for crime victims and their families, and preventing additional victimizations. Earlier this year, President Bush launched an ambitious federal initiative to advance the cause of justice through the use of DNA technology. The President has committed over $1 billion over the next 5 years to support this major initiative.
Better use of DNA evidence holds tremendous potential for increasing our capacity promptly to solve crimes, convict the guilty, exonerate the innocent, and protect the public. This potential was demonstrated in two major cases that recently made headlines.
In April, Seattle police solved a 20-year-old murder case using the ruse of promised money to lure a suspect into sending them a return envelope that allowed them to obtain DNA from the suspect’s saliva on the seal. Seattle Police Homicide Lieutenant Steve Brown said the case “shows how powerful the latest DNA testing truly is.”
The power of DNA also made headlines in the arrest of a suspected serial killer here in Louisiana. DNA taken from the body of a murdered 26-year-old Louisiana State University student matched the DNA taken from this man, who was a suspect in an unrelated case. This DNA evidence also linked the murder suspect to the deaths of four other Louisiana women.
Unfortunately, the power of DNA technology to advance justice has been limited due to insufficient funds, inadequate laboratory capacity, outdated information systems, overwhelming caseloads, and a lack of training. As a result, there are hundreds of thousands of DNA samples awaiting analysis in crime labs across the country, countless offenders who are not being held accountable for their crimes, and countless victims awaiting resolution of their cases.
Many of you may be familiar with the story of Debbie Smith, a sexual assault survivor who waited six years before DNA testing finally identified her attacker. Debbie learned that her assailant had gone to jail only months after raping her. But because of a backlog in Virginia’s DNA database, she waited 6 years to hear that he was already behind bars.
Debbie has described her feelings on learning that her attacker was in jail: “Finally,” she said, “I could quit looking over my shoulder. . . . Within myself, the healing had begun and peace had come at last.” She later testified against her assailant, who is now serving two life sentences plus 25 years, with no chance of parole.
Debbie, like other survivors of rape such as Kellie Greene – whose attack might never have occurred at all had a vigorous testing program been in place when she was victimized in 1986 – has now become an advocate for increased resources for DNA testing and analysis. Through the President’s initiative, we will be able to prevent the victimizations of countless other women, men, and children.
As part of this effort, we’ll provide funding to help eliminate the backlog in analyzing DNA samples for the most serious violent offenses within 5 years, committing over $90 million just in the first year to backlog reduction.
Our National Institute of Justice estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of backlogged rape and homicide case samples and collected but untested convicted offender samples. If we do not act, these backlogs will only get larger as states, appropriately, test more offenders and improve their crime scene DNA collection efforts.
For that reason, the initiative also aims to increase the capacity of federal, state, and local crime labs so that crime labs won’t be burdened with overwhelming backlogs in the future. The President’s Initiative calls for $60 million, just in the first year of this 5-year plan, to help labs update their infrastructure, automate their DNA analysis procedures, and improve their retention and storage of forensic evidence.
We also plan to expand CODIS – the national DNA database – to hold 50 million DNA profiles – up from its current 1.7 million samples – and speed its ability to match crime scene evidence to convicted offender samples, from hours to microseconds.
We’ve already doubled the number of crime scene samples matched to convicted offender samples in CODIS – from 2,200 in 2001 to almost 5,000 last year. As the Attorney General said in announcing these results, “This translates into thousands of crimes solved, rapists and murderers caught, and fewer victims.”
We’ll also work with other partners to develop training to ensure that police officers and medical personnel collect evidence properly, that prosecutors introduce and use DNA evidence successfully in court, that judges rule correctly on its admissibility during trials, and that victim assistance personnel understand DNA technology and its implications. John has pledged funds from the Office for Victims of Crime specifically for the training of victim advocates on the implications of DNA.
Training is critical to ensure that first-line responders are aware of the potential of DNA evidence in solving cases. Let me give you two quick examples.
An alert police officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, recently used DNA evidence to identify a suspect wanted in a string of sexual assaults. The officer stopped and questioned a man who matched a description of the rapist. After the suspect left, the officer bent down to pick up a napkin the man had used to blow his nose.
DNA testing matched the evidence on the napkin to the DNA evidence recovered from the rape victims. The man was arrested and charged with first-degree rape, first-degree assault, burglary, and various handgun violations. And the residents in the neighborhood where the rapes occurred breathed a sigh of relief.
In another case in Texas, an investigator solved the rape of a local college student by requesting DNA testing on the phone cord used to choke the woman. The perpetrator had worn gloves, and the cord bore no fingerprints. However, DNA testing revealed saliva on the phone cord. Evidently, the rapist had held the cord in his mouth while subduing the victim. The DNA evidence from the cord solved not only that case, but also a similar sexual assault in another city.
Without these officers’ knowledge of the crime-solving possibilities of DNA evidence, these cases might never have been solved, the perpetrators might still be free, and neighborhood residents might still be living in fear. We’ve allocated $17.5 million next year to support training for law enforcement and others who come in contact with crime victims on the collection and use of DNA evidence.
In what I think is a very important development, we’re also working to use DNA to identify missing persons and help bring to the families of victims at least the partial closure that comes with knowing what happened to a loved one. Again and again, families of the missing tell us that simply not knowing is the most difficult and painful part of the experience for them.
We’re working on this project with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Bode Laboratories. Bode Labs has donated 600 DNA test kits that NCMEC is using to help requesting jurisdictions identify unidentified bodies. Just last month, this effort resulted in the identification of the body of an 18-year-old Kentucky man who had been missing for more than six years, and an end to the terrible uncertainty suffered by his family.
There’s one final component of the DNA initiative I want to mention. And it’s an important one. In order to make full use of the power of DNA technology, DNA samples should be collected from all convicted felons and added to the national DNA database. Currently, only 29 states require DNA samples from all convicted felons. These states have much higher “hit rates” – matches of DNA evidence to profiles of convicted offenders in DNA databases – than other states that have more limited requirements.
For example, Virginia, which has been collecting DNA from all convicted felons since 1990, has a convicted offender database of more than 189,000 DNA profiles. As a result, they averaged 37 hits per month in 2002. Of the 1,070 hits Virginia had as of last March, approximately 82 percent would have been missed if its database were limited to only violent offenders, instead of all convicted felons.
Florida has had a similar experience. The fact is, many of the offenders matched with violent crime scene evidence are found to have only a burglary conviction on their record.
If your state isn’t currently collecting such data, I encourage you to work with your state legislators to pass legislation to expand your state’s DNA sample collection to include all convicted felons.
At the same time, we’re working with the Chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and other Members of Congress to pass legislation that will allow all DNA samples lawfully collected under the laws of all the states to be included in CODIS. These efforts will help bring offenders to justice and ensure justice for crime victims.
In closing, I want to thank all of you for the work you do, every day, on behalf of our nation’s crime victims. As the Attorney General has said, you “exemplify the model of service to our nation that President Bush has challenged all Americans to emulate.” You have made a tremendous, incalculable difference in the lives of victims throughout the country, and in the safety of your communities. Thank you for your dedication and continued commitment to building a stronger, safer America.