State missing up to 12,000 DNA samples from felons

www.wfrv.com
BYLINE: Angenette Levy -

Green Bay, WI

GREEN BAY (WFRV) - As many as 12,000 DNA samples from convicted felons were never submitted to Wisconsin's State Crime Lab for analysis and entry into the state's DNA databank, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Thursday.

"There are problems hundreds of explanations to cover those 12,000 individuals and why they didn’t have those samples collected,” Van Hollen said. Felons are required to submit a DNA sample for entry in the Combined DNA Index System, OR CODIS, when convicted. The collection of the samples and development of the profiles has led to arrests and convictions in other cases.

“What it means at worst, is that there are offenses that have been committed for which we have DNA evidence and we don’t have a known offender in the data bank to tie that offense to,” Van Hollen said.

The arrest of suspected serial killer Walter Ellis in Milwaukee led to the discovery of the absent DNA profiles. Ellis apparently had another inmate submit his sample. When crime lab technicians realized the profile was a duplicate, it was discarded, but the Department of Corrections was never notified, and a sample was never collected from Ellis. Van Hollen said his agency is not responsible for collecting DNA samples and is not required to notify DOC of duplicates.

Van Hollen said the samples are collected by county jails or the state prison system. In 2001, a change in state statute made it mandatory for felons to submit to a DNA sample collection. Van Hollen feels confident the samples were never collected, but no one seems to be able to rule out impersonation by other inmates, or possible corruption in the system as causes for the samples to be missing.

The Department of Corrections could be responsible for 70% of the missing samples. DOC spokesman John Dipko said late Thursday the agency had received the names of the 12,000 inmates whose profiles are not in CODIS. Dipko said DOC Secretary Rick Raemisch -- a former prosecutor and sheriff -- was "stunned" to learn of the massive oversight.

"He’s making it a first priority for this agency to do this cross-check, and to review our internal processes,” Dipko said.

In 2001, when it became mandatory for DOC to collect DNA samples, Dipko said prisons conducted "sweeps" periodically to collect the samples from inmates. Since then, the collections have been conducted during the intake phase, when a felon enters the prison system, making the collection process more individualized. Dipko doesn't believe possible corruption by prison employees is to blame.

"We have a very dedicated and professional staff at the Department of Corrections. They understand the importance of DNA and they’re taking this seriously as well.”

Dipko said DOC hopes to pinpoint the location of those felons whose profiles are missing within days rather than weeks.

Van Hollen said he does not know how much the collection of DNA samples and processing at the crime lab will cost taxpayers but didn't anticipate a "huge" expense, but conceded it will increase the workload of DNA analysts.

“We are definitely going to have to contribute resources that we otherwise wouldn’t have had to come up with these identities.”
Van Hollen also said he does not anticipate any appellate issues from those felons serving time in the prison system whose conviction relied on DNA evidence, even though the appearance of flaws within the system is undeniable. Van Hollen said anytime a DNA match is made using CODIS in an unsolved crime, a second sample is taken from the suspect for analysis.

"I want the general public to be reaffirmed that the DNA process still works," Van Hollen said. He added, "It still has great integrity and none of this issue effects the integrity of the DNA process and our ability to make sure that we acquit those who are not guilty and convict those who are guilty.”

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