The recent arrest of a suspected serial rapist illustrates the crime-fighting benefit of broadening Nebraska's law on collecting DNA from convicted felons, authorities say.
A year after the Nebraska State Patrol conducted a record 8,700 DNA tests on felons, it made an unprecedented 75 matches to the DNA database maintained by the FBI. That enabled the State Patrol to provide local law enforcement agencies in Nebraska and elsewhere with key information to solving outstanding crimes, some of which had long grown cold.
“We've had a huge spike” in DNA matches, said Pam Zilly, director of the State Patrol's DNA lab.
The State Patrol is the primary lab in Nebraska for processing DNA samples from felons.
Just a few years ago, the lab processed an average of 600 DNA samples a year from felons, most of whom were serving prison time. When state lawmakers expanded testing in 2010 to all felons, including those on probation and parole, testing increased significantly. The lab now processes an average of 4,500 DNA samples a year, Zilly said.
“Anybody who walks in the door is going to get a DNA test,” said Steve Rowoldt, the deputy administrator of the state probation offices, who oversees DNA collection. “It's increasing the federal database, so if people are committing more crimes, they will have a record.”
The change is helping “solve and prevent crime as part of a bigger picture,” he said.
Last year the lab matched 49 DNA samples to the FBI database, compared with 10 matches in 2009, when the lab was testing hundreds, not thousands, of samples a year.
Figures so far this year aren't available, but at least one match has drawn a lot of attention.
Omaha police received a letter this month from the state DNA lab saying it had run Anthony G. Vaughn's profile through CODIS, the FBI's combined DNA index system.
The lab indicated a match between Vaughn's DNA — taken by a probation officer after a burglary conviction — and evidence collected from three Omaha rape victims. Subsequent comparisons at another DNA lab led to matches collected from two other Omaha women.
Vaughn, 41, is being held without bail in the Douglas County Correctional Center on five counts of first-degree sexual assault.
“We've been able to provide very important information that aids the investigation,” Zilly said.
How many of the lab's matches lead to convictions is hard to say, she said. Unless Zilly or her staff members are called on to testify, they usually don't hear about the outcome of an investigation after they have passed on the DNA information to local law enforcement officials.
But matches are key to building — and rebuilding — cases.
At the same time that prison and probation officials are collecting DNA samples from felons, crime scene investigators are gathering DNA evidence linked to rapes, homicides and property crimes. The two sides of DNA collection prove invaluable each time a lab reports a hit.
Although Zilly isn't allowed to discuss investigations conducted by other law enforcement officials, she said that this year alone, results from her lab have allowed authorities to make progress in two separate sexual assault cases from the 1990s. Both crimes were committed in other states.
In another case, a DNA hit at the lab directed authorities to a suspect in 10 burglaries committed from 2008 to 2010.
Lt. Darci Tierney, a spokeswoman for the Omaha Police Department, said detectives in recent years have been able to send out DNA samples in more cases with the help of federal grant money.
Processing a test at the Douglas County crime lab or the University of Nebraska Medical Center typically costs $500 per sample, county officials say.
Zilly didn't have cost figures for the state, but said the benefits of the testing far outweigh the price.
“It's a great tool,” she said.
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