Did FBI delay of DNA test prolong Florida rape spree?

Bradenton HeraldOctober 6, 2009 

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Federal authorities acknowledged Tuesday that they had had a DNA sample from home invasion and rape suspect Delmer Smith III during the months detectives say he attacked numerous women in their homes in a violent crime spree.

But Smith's DNA had never been entered into the FBI's DNA databases, so authorities in Florida's Sarasota County didn't get a match from DNA they say Smith, 38, left behind in four incidents.

FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd said Smith's DNA was part of a huge backlog in entering DNA collected from federal prisoners into the databases, which are used regularly by local law enforcement agencies across the nation. Smith was a federal inmate until late 2008 for a 1995 bank robbery.

“The FBI Laboratory has a backlog of offender samples, and Delmer Smith’s DNA sample was part of the backlog,” Todd wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.

As early as Feb. 22, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office had DNA from a home invasion attack in which detectives say he beat two women in their home, raping one of them. DNA was also found at three similar home invasion attacks, according to reports.

In April, Sarasota authorities announced they had tested DNA samples from two of the attacks, and they came back as being left by the same person. But no match came back from databases.

Without Smith’s DNA in the federal database, Sarasota officials went without a match to the DNA collected in the home invasions.

Between Feb. 16 and May 26, officials with the sheriff’s office in Sarasota, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and Bradenton Police Department suspect Smith committed as many as 11 home invasion attacks in both counties.

When Smith went to prison in 1995, the law did not mandate taking DNA from federal convicts. But in 2000, with the enactment of the DNA Backlog Elimination Act, federal authorities began obtaining samples from offenders.

The FBI received Smith's DNA on March 3, 2008, from the prison in Indiana where he was housed, but it was not entered into the database before his release in September 2008, Todd said.

The first break for law enforcement came in August, when police in Venice, Fla., say Smith got into a bar fight in which he beat two men. Police reports say the Aug. 14 fight started when the boyfriend of a woman confronted Smith for videotaping his girlfriend on the dance floor.

Police reports say Smith broke several bones in the man’s face, and also struck a second man. He was arrested on aggravated battery charges, but the victims declined to press charges and Smith was released. But a federal probation officer later determined that Smith violated his bank robbery probation because of the fight.

Venice police then went to the home where Smith’s pregnant girlfriend lives and asked to search the home.

The woman told investigators Smith had called from jail and told her to hide items he had placed in the attic. Officers found a gun owned by Smith and numerous pieces of electronics, including laptop computers in a storage unit nearby.

Many of the laptops turned out to have been reported stolen from homes where the attacks had occurred.

The gun also violated Smith’s probation, according to federal authorities, and police arrested him Sept. 10 at a Venice apartment complex where he was living with another woman. On Sept. 11, he was booked into the Pinellas County jail, where he is being held without bond.

With the laptops linked to the attacks, and the realization that Smith was a former federal convict, authorities on Sept. 17 asked the FBI to search for Smith’s DNA sample from his prison days. Todd said the bureau found it had not been entered into the system, and put the request on the fast track, a regular occurrence when law enforcement agencies ask for a sample to be rushed during an urgent case.

On Sept. 24, the DNA collected from the Sarasota crime scenes was tested against Smith’s DNA now in the federal database. On Oct. 1, the FBI confirmed a match, leading to several charges of armed home invasion, false imprisonment and sexual battery against Smith.

Smith also remains under investigation for attacks in Manatee County and the city of Bradenton.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said detectives here will be searching property recovered while investigating Smith to see if anything was stolen from the Manatee crime scenes. He said law enforcement officials in Sarasota and Manatee will be meeting with the state attorney’s office to look at the totality of evidence against Smith.

As for the DNA backlog, Smith’s DNA profile is one of 295,000 samples that have been collected but not yet entered into federal databases.

In recent months, the FBI has implemented an automated system that increased processing capabilities to 30,000 a month, with the hope of having that rate up to 120,000 processes a month in the coming months, according to Todd. Once that rate is achieved, the FBI should be able to process DNA samples and enter them into databases within 30 days of getting a sample.

But the backlog remains a major problem, according to Lawrence Kobilinsky, forensic science professor and chair of the science department at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It is a serious problem because these people who commit crimes, they’re recidivists. They don’t stop what they’re doing. Unless there’s good communication and good databases, they won’t be stopped,” he said.

How quickly a DNA sample is processed depends on the cleanliness and type of sample; a cheek swab that is sterile will be quickest; skeletal remains with lots of contamination the longest, Kobilinsky said.

The typical DNA sample takes about 20 hours spread out over time to process.

“A lot of the holdup is the paperwork,” Kobilinsky said. “I’m talking about 1½ inches to three inches of paper on the typical case.”

There is no way to gauge the effect the backlog is having on crime prevention, the professor said, or how many crimes could have been prevented without the backlog.

“Nobody really knows,” Kobilinsky said. “There’s really no answer to that.”

Duane Marstellar of the Bradenton Herald contributed to this report.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service