As DNA Testing Booms, So Does Lab Backlog


Mark Wayne Rathbun, 34, raped 14 women around Long Beach, Calif., from 1997 to 2002. In September, the drifter was sentenced to 1,030 years plus 10 life terms. But many of those rapes might have been prevented, law enforcement officials say, had California’s new DNA law been in place years ago, reports U.S. News & World Report. That’s the promise of Proposition 69, approved last month by 62 percent of California voters. It will create the largest DNA database of any state by collecting genetic material from all convicted felons and from people arrested for a host of serious crimes. Prop 69 also requires collection of DNA samples from anyone arrested for any felony, starting in 2009. Under the old law, California collected DNA samples only from people convicted of one of 36 serious felonies.

Proposition 69 is part of a broad expansion in the use of DNA nationwide, a trend that could revolutionize criminal justice. For all its successes, though, DNA testing has some problems. Labs can’t keep up with a growing backlog of DNA samples, and critics say new testing rules represent a fundamental threat to civil liberties. In 1990, Virginia became the first state to require DNA samples from all convicted felons. Today, 37 states do so, and Ohio is set to follow suit this week. Four states, including California, now require samples from some arrestees. But as states test more people, they are winding up with backlogs of samples awaiting analysis. Evidence collected in more than 540,000 unsolved criminal cases is awaiting DNA testing.


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