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Editorial: DNA data helping to reduce rape

When a Rowan County man was charged last year with a rape committed in 1986, it powerfully illustrated how DNA testing has revolutionized the investigation and prosecution of rape and other violent crimes.
Kenneth McDaniel was sitting in a Virginia jail on grand larceny charges when DNA evidence linked him to the 23-year-old Salisbury case. That’s a long time for any case to go unsolved, but the Salisbury attack might never have been prosecuted if not for the widespread collection of DNA samples from both crime scenes and felons and the increased funding that has allowed the state to hire more analysts and process evidence more quickly. Nationwide, DNA evidence has helped clear thousands of cases that might otherwise have stymied investigators or, in the worst-case scenario, even resulted in wrongful convictions.
Now, crime experts are saying that DNA evidence isn’t just helping to convict rapists. It may also be helping to prevent some future attacks. That conclusion is based on recently released FBI statistics showing that reported rapes have dropped to the lowest level in 20 years. In 2008, 89,000 women reported being raped, down from an all-time high of 109,062 in 1992.
That decline isn’t solely attributable to DNA evidence, according to a story in USA Today. Attitudes about rape have shifted from an era when a victim’s credibility was too often put on trial, and most law-enforcement agencies now have personnel with special expertise in handling rape cases. But crime experts say the expansion of DNA sampling and databases has helped reduce rape because many offenders are now arrested and convicted after an initial attack ó before they can become repeat offenders, as many rapists tend to be.
Obviously, DNA samples are no good if they’re gathering dust on a shelf. A few years ago, North Carolina’s state DNA testing labs suffered chronic backlogs, at one point including 6,000 untested rape kits. Spurred largely by the N.C. Attorney General, the state was able to secure more federal money and hire more analysts, which resulted in much faster processing of DNA evidence. At the same time, Attorney General Roy Cooper successfully advocated for a 2003 state law that allowed law enforcement to collect DNA from all convicted felons for a statewide database.
The advances in forensic DNA technology and crime lab processing are impressive. But while visiting Salisbury for a recent statewide summit on crime, Attorney General Roy Cooper said the system could be strengthened through further expansion of DNA databases, perhaps by taking samples from suspects as well as felons, and better coordination of state and national databases. While DNA testing and nationwide data banks inevitably raise some civil liberties concerns, this has proved to be a vital tool for law enforcement. If not for its expanded use, many rapists now behind bars would still be on the streets, stalking future victims.

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