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Virginia pioneers development of DNA database to solve crimes


(CNN) -- Virginia became one of the first states in the nation to pass a DNA database law, according to Paul Ferrara, director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science.

Passed in 1989, the law stipulated that state authorities must collect DNA samples only from people convicted of violent felonies such as homicide, said Ferrara, who also belongs to the Justice Department's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.

In 1990, the law was expanded to include those convicted of nonviolent felonies such as manslaughter. In 1996, the law was beefed up further to include minors as young as 14 convicted of felony crimes in adult courts, Ferrara said.

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The database has been most useful in helping authorities find likely suspects by matching the DNA at the crime scene to the DNA results in the database, he said. State authorities have made 240 such "cold hits" since 1989, sometimes cracking crimes from as far back as 20 years, Ferrara said.

From 1989 to the end of September, the Virginia DNA databank helped police solve 107 rape cases, 28 homicides, 10 rape homicides, 90 burglaries and breaking and entering cases and 14 other crimes including auto theft, drive-by shooting and arson, Ferrara said.

After police finish processing each eligible inmate's blood sample, technicians dry the sample on a piece of special paper and store it in a vault, Ferrara said.

A bar code and identification number are attached to each sample; the name of the felon and other identifying information is left out, he said.

Alleviating fears that authorities might "search" the sample for unauthorized purposes, Ferrara said state law limits the use of the sample to law enforcement purposes.

The types of genetic "markers" authorities are looking for "are very useful for identification purposes but provide no genetic information with respect to any physical traits, any medical conditions, any propensity for violent behavior. It's called junk DNA, the parts that we use," he said.

In 1989, the state's annual DNA budget was about $60,000, he said. For this year, the budget was $6 million.

Virginia currently has 122,000 DNA profiles stored in a "stand-alone, secure" computer. Only a handful of officials who have undergone FBI background checks can access the computer, Ferrara said.

The state spends about $50 to collect, process, store and computerize each DNA sample, he said.

"It's fascinating the different types of crimes you can solve with this," he said. "This turns out to be a bargain for the public in terms of cost versus the benefits," he said.

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July 27, 2000
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June 11, 2000
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June 20, 2000
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January 31, 2000
Death row exonerations inspire debate over death penalty
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New York DNA database
National Commission for the Future of DNA Evidence

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