DNA cold-case pilot to launch

Ventura County Star (California)

Ventura Co., CA

Thursday, the House of Representatives, at the request of U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, approved a $570,000 pilot project for a specialized unit in the District Attorney's Office dedicated to the prosecution of cold cases solved through DNA technology.

While cold-case prosecutions based on DNA evidence are not new to Ventura County, this funding is vital given the dramatic increases expected in the number of cases solved by DNA evidence. In 2004, California voters overwhelmingly approved a statewide initiative (Proposition 69) that expanded the DNA database by requiring all convicted felons to provide a DNA sample.

The initiative also authorized the collection of DNA from all adults arrested and charged with the commission of a felony beginning this year. The samples can then be compared against thousands of unknown DNA samples left at crime scenes. The provisions of Proposition 69 have led to significant increases in the number of "cold hits."

California's DNA database contains 1.2 million DNA samples and is expected to grow by an additional million samples over the next few years.

Today, the California Department of Justice is matching 300 cold hits every month. The growth in DNA data and increasing numbers of "cold hits" will produce an exponential increase in the number of old murder and sexual as-sault cases solved through DNA.

The federal government has recognized the value of DNA comparison and invested nearly $1 billion into DNA technology by providing funds to law-enforcement agencies and crime labs to reduce the number of DNA samples that are backlogged in evidence rooms and crime labs awaiting analysis. But, no federal money has yet been invested in the prosecution that must follow a cold-case match.

Like many jurisdictions, Ventura County is poised to experience a dramatic increase in the number of DNA cold-hit cases that will demand prosecution. These cases often involve decades-old crimes and almost always require substantial prosecutorial resources beyond those of traditional cases. The vast majority of law-enforcement resources, of necessity, are devoted to the violent crimes that have recently occurred. Thankfully, Rep. Gallegly's precedent-setting proposal will, for the first time in the nation's history, appropriate federal funds for the actual prosecution of "cold-hit" DNA cases.

In addition to providing Ventura County with a specialized prosecution team to concentrate on these difficult cases, the pilot project will also be used by Congress to evaluate whether the program should be expanded on a much broader basis.

This potential funding also comes at a critical time when the state and county are facing major economic upheaval and are unable to fund this type of project. Indeed, the district attorney's budget for next year's operations has already been reduced by $3 million and remains vulnerable to still more cuts as state lawmakers struggle with budget reform.

Thus, pilot projects like the Ventura County DNA cold-case program are not only welcome, but sorely needed. Rep. Gallegly once again has proved himself a steadfast ally in the fight to keep Ventura County at the forefront of innovation and effectiveness in combating crime. - Gregory D. Totten is Ventura County district attorney.

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