DENVER — Unless he has another brush with the law and a DNA sample is taken from him, JonBenet Ramsey’s killer might never be caught.
Even worse, his DNA might already be in a police filing cabinet somewhere, still waiting, along with hundreds of thousands of genetic samples from felons across the United States, to be processed by a laboratory and entered into the national DNA databank.
The nation’s DNA tracking system is beset with a huge backlog that could take years to clear. And in the meantime, law enforcement officials say, crimes are going unsolved.
"It’s very, very frustrating because this tool is so powerful," said Norm Gahn, a Milwaukee prosecutor who helped pioneer the practice of filing charges against unidentified sex offenders based solely on their DNA profile.
Investigators in the JonBenet case said this week that tests on a few invisible skin cells have convinced them they have the DNA profile of the man who killed the 6-year-old beauty queen in her Boulder, Colo., home in 1996. But so far they haven’t found a match.
L. Lin Wood, an attorney for JonBenet’s father, John, said he is confident someone will be arrested someday: "DNA will get the killer of JonBenet."
How long it might take depends on whether the killer has any major brushes with the law that would make him subject to a mandatory DNA test. It might also depend on how quickly state or local police, or an outside laboratory, can analyze the sample, extract the DNA profile and get it entered into the national databank.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 DNA samples from convicted offenders nationwide still were waiting to be added to the federal government’s database in 2003, the most recent numbers available, according to a study funded by the U.S. Justice Department.
Since then, the total number of offender profiles in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System has grown nearly fourfold, from 1.5 million to 5.8 million. But experts believe the backlog is still as big as ever because more states have begun requiring DNA samples from defendants.
All but three states — Idaho, Nebraska, and New Hampshire — now require felons to submit DNA, according to Lisa Hurst, a consultant for a Washington state law firm that specializes in DNA issues. At least 12 states require DNA samples from anyone merely arrested for a felony, including California, whose law goes into effect next year.
In April, the Justice Department announced that all people arrested by federal law enforcement agencies would be required to submit a DNA sample via a cheek swab.
Shrinking the backlog has been daunting.
"It’s a matter of personnel, training that personnel, the space to do the testing and just the sheer cost of it," Hurst said.
State crime labs are struggling to catch up, knowing how valuable the DNA profiles are.
Wyoming authorities took a DNA sample from Diego Olmos-Alcalde in 2001 after a kidnapping conviction, but it languished for seven years. When it finally was processed and added to the federal database in January of this year, it quickly was matched to the 1997 slaying of 23-year-old Susannah Chase, a University of Colorado student who was sexually assaulted, beaten with a baseball bat and left to die in an alley in Boulder.
Olmos-Alcalde, 38, now is charged with murder.
Wyoming has a backlog of 7,000, down from 10,000 at the start of the year, said Steve Holloway, director of the State Crime Laboratory. The samples — cotton swabs in sealed envelopes, waiting to be sent to an outside laboratory — fill about 36 file drawers.
Another complicating factor is when the DNA is collected. In Illinois, for example, samples aren’t taken until felons get out of prison, Hurst said.
"You’re talking years" between the arrest and the time the DNA gets into the database, she said. "Here’s the scary thing: They’re giving samples as they’re walking out the door."
In Nevada, Washoe County, Sheriff Mike Haley appealed in February for public donations to help clear a backlog of 3,000 DNA samples awaiting processing in the hopes of solving the kidnapping of 19-year-old Brianna Denison. Days after the appeal, Haley said his office received $71,000 in donations with an additional $93,000 in pledges. Denison’s slaying remains unsolved.Interactive tool showing JonBenet Ramsey Case Timeline