MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A national DNA database, arguably one of the most crucial crime fighting tools, is missing valuable information that could prevent crimes from being solved.
In 1998, a woman unlocking her southeast Memphis apartment felt a cold, metal object pressed into her back.
Terrell Jackson threatened to shoot as he followed her inside, put a blanket over her head and raped her.
DNA evidence wasn’t processed until 17 years later.
In 2001, Thomas Maupin violently raped a woman in a North Memphis alley, but the DNA evidence wasn’t sent to the lab until 2017.
He went on to kill two more women in Millington.
The DNA from both men were in a national database called the Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS. When the evidence was finally entered, it played a crucial role in their arrests.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Regional Supervisor, Donna Nelson, said DNA evidence is submitted to their crime lab and then entered into CODIS, so it can be searched against DNA left at other scenes.
It can also be compared to DNA from people who have spent time behind bars. It can rule out suspects and quickly generate matches like it did with Jackson and Maupin.
“The more samples you have in the database, the more crimes you can solve,” Nelson said.
In Tennessee, those convicted of felonies and sex crime misdemeanors and some arrestees are required to submit their DNA so it can be uploaded into CODIS.
But WREG Investigators found out that the law hasn’t been followed for years. CODIS is missing DNA samples from across the state and has left some crimes unsolved for decades and allowed criminals to walk free.
How did they get through without giving their DNA?
“I would just say it happens if you don’t have a process in place that you’re monitoring and you’re making sure the samples are being collected. It can fall through the gaps,” Nelson said.
The TBI predicts statewide that there are around 76,000 samples missing, dating back to 1998.
A discovery Nelson says Memphis Police brought to their attention.
In the fall of 2019, the Memphis Police Department went to a national conference and spoke to the sheriff’s office from Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
They found out how 15,000 offenders there somehow never gave their DNA.
“Once we returned, we briefed our command staff and let them know that we would be looking into it,” MPD’s Sex Crimes Unit Major Michael Rosario said.
Rosario assigned a team to take on the daunting task.
“We requested convicted felony information from the courts in Shelby County, and we got a sample of about 30,000 individuals,” MPD Sgt. Stephen Shepherd said.
As they started sifting through, they discovered missing DNA samples and a serious system failure.
The Tennessee Department of Corrections would swab for DNA when the inmate began his sentence or started probation or parole. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office handled DNA swabbing for those arrested of violent and sexual crimes.
However, no one was collecting DNA for those who pleaded guilty or were convicted of low-level felony offenses who got credit for time they had already served in jail, meaning they didn’t have to go back to prison or jail to complete their sentence.
“Who’s job was this going to be?” Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said.
She organized meetings with multiple agencies to answer that question.
“Going forward, the plan is in place. We implemented it here February 1, 2021,” Weirich said.
The TDOC volunteered to take on the role.
Joe Williams, TDOC West Region Correctional Administrator, told WREG their court specialists received training and have been handling those unique situations.
“We are still figuring out a few little items, but so far it’s working. It’s working really wel,” WIlliams said.
Failure to collect DNA is a problem across the country.
And officials with Cuyahoga County’s Sheriff’s Office, who MPD first talked to, said they’ve since collected 15% of the 15-thousand missing samples. It generated 85 forensic hits from sexual assaults, burglaries and even homicides.
There’s no telling what MPD has recovered so far. We submitted an open records request asking for their list of offenders who owe DNA, but were told no records exist.
Rosairo said the list isn’t complete yet.
“The end result will be increased leads in investigations, solving additional crimes, keeping ,hopefully, repeat offenders off the streets,” Rosairo said.
No one we spoke with knew if offenders who owe DNA will be legally required to give a sample.
What is clear is the Department of Justice granted the TBI $1 million to figure out who owes DNA in the state and to create a strategy moving forward.