If authorities are right, young women in eastern Nebraska can sleep easier because a DNA match in a criminal database led to the arrest of a suspect in a series of sexual assaults.
But one aspect of the investigation should still keep Nebraskans awake at night: Why did it take 18 months before authorities obtained the DNA sample from that felon after he had been sentenced?
In September 2011, the man was given three years of probation for his first felony conviction, breaking into a house where a woman was showering. Under state law, that conviction meant he had to submit to a DNA swab.
And the 2010 law was followed to the letter, according to reporting by The World-Herald’s Todd Cooper and Kevin Cole.
The law requires that all felons be swabbed, but it allows prisoners and people put on probation to be handled differently. It says those headed to prison must be swabbed for DNA when they enter the corrections system, while those sentenced to probation must be swabbed only at some point before they finish their probation terms.
Details of this case should spur policy-makers and state lawmakers in Lincoln to insist that all such DNA samples be obtained promptly.
The Omaha suspect was on the streets for a year and a half before his DNA was obtained — not the 90-day goal set by Douglas County’s head probation officer as the state works to catch up with a backlog of felons. It takes about another two months to run a suspect’s DNA through the FBI database that checks it against open criminal cases.
The suspect now faces charges in the rapes of five Omaha women from 1999 to 2009, and investigators are examining other cases in Lincoln.
Though there is no evidence yet that additional crimes were committed while this suspect was out on probation, such a wait poses unacceptable risk. Some 20 more months were added to the time as victims wondered whether justice would be done.
The author of the law requiring that the DNA samples be collected and entered into the database is Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln. Avery told The World-Herald that the law was intended to bring speedier justice, not delays.
The first goal of gathering DNA from felons is to help solve open cases, and prosecutors say that the longer a prosecution waits, the more difficult it becomes to get a conviction.
“The sooner we get them in a database, the sooner we can solve these crimes,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said.
Officials readily admit that the expanded DNA testing has thus far resulted in only a trickle of database hits. But the database is growing, and they expect that mining it for information will grow in importance over time.
Chief Douglas County probation officer Ron Broich has taken responsibility for the DNA delay and pledged to do better.
Until the language of state law can be changed to speed things up, the probation system should prioritize addressing any backlog of felons yet to be swabbed. Making certain new probationers are tested quickly also needs to happen.
And state lawmakers should work with Avery to revise the law to treat all felons the same, to obtain the DNA at the start of their sentences — before they get the privilege of returning to our communities on probation.
Such changes could help keep other victims from asking the question posed by a 2005 rape victim when her alleged attacker was identified through the delayed DNA process: “Why’d it take so long?”