DNA review of old evidence in VA moving slowly

After a DNA review of old convictions based on body fluid typing, two innocent men imprisoned on rape charges were released. But a further review of old evidence has barely moved at all.

Last year two men convicted of rapes were freed from Virginia prisons after a DNA review of evidence - blood or semen - found that they were innocent. They were freed because a now-dead forensic examiner saved the physical evidence in 31 cases. As a result, Gov. Mark Warner ordered a search for all evidence suitable for DNA testing. The idea is to use DNA technology to make sure no other innocents are sitting behind bars.

But the investigation is moving more slowly than hoped, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. In fact, in the past years, no old evidence has been tested.

"It's probably been a little slower than I would like to have seen," said Paul B. Ferrara, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. "We're all kind of anxious and yet, it's just a difficult project."

The state Forensic Science Board reported that 329,515 case files had been searched and 2,970 of them contained physical evidence. Of those, 1,850 have named suspects. If there was a conviction and DNA testing could help shed light on guilt or innocence, then the case will be sent off for testing. Ferrara hopes the first batch of about 30 cases will be submitted for testing next month. Results will be reported to the appropriate authorities as they are learned.

"This is a very novel project and one which takes considerable care and has a lot of variation in circumstances. [It has] to be thought out carefully," he said.

The project is the result of the efforts of state serologists who happened to save material with blood or semen on them in their case files. Serology is a technology for typing body fluids, chiefly blood, that has been largely been replaced by DNA analysis.

By September 2004, three men were exonerated of rapes because of material saved by serologists. In response, Warner ordered the review of 10 percent of the 1973 to 1988 files in which serological examinations -- but no DNA testing -- had been conducted and in which evidence samples had been saved by the serologists.

The serologists began saving the material in 1973. In 1989 the department began requiring that such evidence be returned to the law-enforcement agency investigating the case. The Bode Technology Group Inc. of Springfield turned up 284 samples in 31 cases that met Warner's criteria. Twenty nine of the 31 cases resulted in convictions.

In three cases, DNA testing excluded the person convicted of the crime. In two of those cases, prosecutors asked Warner to issue absolute pardons, Ferrara said. Both men already had been released from prison.