Between 1977 and 1993, 13 young women were strangled to death in Jackson County, Missouri. Forensic evidence showed that the murders were committed by the same suspect, but for more than a decade, the killer was able to elude the authorities. In 2004, lab technicians analyzed a blood sample that had been sitting on a shelf since 1987. DNA evidence from this sample identified 53-year-old Lorenzo Gilyard as the murderer. The blood sample was finally analyzed as the result of work being carried out by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ, which is the research, development, and evaluation component within the Office of Justice Programs, created a new program to help analyze millions of backlogged DNA samples nationwide. This program has uncovered critical evidence to solve thousands of cold cases and has dramatically enhanced the capacity of local law enforcement to use DNA evidence as a crime-fighting tool.
Due to the popularity of television shows like CSI, everyone in America knows that the tiniest bit of DNA evidence can help solve the most difficult cases. But one of the biggest national scandals that few people have heard of was the backlog of unanalyzed DNA evidence in state and local labs. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of DNA evidence that could have solved cases remained untouched for years. In one instance, 12,000 rape kits—evidence collected from victims through an intrusive medical exam with the expectation that it will be used to help identify the assailant—were found collecting dust in a warehouse in Queens, New York.
In 2002, Congress approved the first federal funds to help clear out these backlogs. Dr. John Morgan and his team were charged with developing and administering this program, but they set out to do more than just create a grant program that states and localities could use to support their forensic work. They understood that DNA is the most significant new tool for solving crimes since the fingerprint, so they created a program that would improve all aspects of how DNA technology is used by state and local law enforcement.
The White House and Congress eventually committed hundreds of millions of dollars to support the President’s Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology initiative, and its impact has been astounding.
The NIJ has provided funding and technical assistance to support analysis of more than 2 million samples from convicted offenders, clearing out the backlog in state and local labs that existed in 2003. To link offender DNA samples to crimes, evidence and biological material from crime victims must also be analyzed. The NIJ’s programs also funded analysis on DNA samples from more than 60,000 cases. Thus far, the Justice Department has documented more than 16,000 “matches” as a result of this testing. These include matches of crime scene evidence to offender samples, as well as matches of crime scene evidence to other crime scene evidence, providing law enforcement with important links between cases. The NIJ also provided $4 million for post-conviction tests to help exonerate the innocent.
NIJ’s strategy called upon states to pass laws requiring the collection of DNA samples from all persons convicted of a felony. Forty-three states have passed such a law.
More than $100 million has been provided to expand the capacity of state and local crime labs, so more DNA testing can be performed in-house, helping to prevent the development of any future backlogs. Training continues to be provided to persons involved in collecting, analyzing or using DNA evidence in the criminal justice system.
DNA evidence has changed the way law enforcement solves crimes, and Dr. John Morgan and his team at NIJ have changed the way that law enforcement uses DNA. These efforts have already directly contributed to the arrest of thousands of criminals, and thanks to the capacity-building component of their work, those arrests represent only a small fraction of the number of crimes that will eventually be solved due to the President’s DNA Initiative.
This medalist was the recipient of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.