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State nearly done analyzing backlogged DNA evidence

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it is close to analyzing the DNA in all of its hundreds of unsolved, backlogged criminal cases.

Florida's backlog is down to about 1,000 cases that have DNA evidence, but no suspect. Officials reduced the number by 800 cases this year.

Initial results appear promising. Of 56 backlogged cases analyzed by independent crime labs and reported back in June, 16 produced hits in the department's DNA database of 181,000 felons, which is linked to the national DNA database.

Another batch, the first 13 outsourced cases, revealed nine hits. Most hits link the crime to a suspect. Occasionally the hit connects DNA evidence in one unsolved crime to the same DNA in another crime.

The department's labs currently handle about 8,000 DNA service requests from local law enforcement.

The department had to seek additional resources to shrink the backlog, said Suzanne Livingston, FDLE's forensic services director.

The department's share of a $2.79-million grant from the National Institute of Justice permitted the agency to use $500,000 to send backlogged cases to private DNA labs outside Florida.

Livingston said the labs are certified, and the department checks them with quality controls to validate their work.

An additional $600,000 from the grant was used to buy robotic equipment for some of the department's six crime labs to do extraction of DNA faster. Another National Institute of Justice grant is waiting for approval in Washington. FDLE is hoping to get $1.6 million of the grant and will use it to clear out 800 to 900 cases.

Those who counsel sexual-assault victims say the push to identify suspects in Florida rape cases through DNA is heartening. There is hope local law enforcement will be encouraged by the disappearing backlog to send in old, potentially useful, DNA evidence.

"We are very pleased with the progress FDLE is making. Florida is a leader in this area," said Terri Poore, director of public policy for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

Florida gradually has expanded whose DNA is collected for its convicted-offender database. Burglary was added in 2000 as a qualifying offense. That was critical to identifying sexual-assault perpetrators, since 58 percent of those identified through DNA as a rape suspect have prior burglary offenses.