What is CODIS and how can it identify innocence claims?

From Aimee Maxwell, GIP Executive Director

First, sorry I’ve been MIA. Our office renovation is almost complete plus I received the applications for our summer program (107!) last week. Takes quite a while to read all those resumes!

One more thing before I get to CODIS. I want to thank everyone who responded to the AJC article by volunteering. I’m so overwhelmed by everyone’s desire to help. If you haven’t heard back from me yet, you will.

Let’s talk about the NIJ grant.

Our NIJ grant application had three parts (1) review CODIS hits; (2) catalog and review cases involving evidence in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) vault; and (3) evaluate, investigate and litigate traditional innocence claims.

The groundbreaking part of our grant was the review of CODIS hits. We worked with the GBI and the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia (PAC) to analyze CODIS hits in Georgia cases to determine if any related to an innocence claim.

The Basics

CODIS is the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. Basically, CODIS is a huge national database containing DNA profiles from two sources: (1) offender samples – in Georgia, every convicted felon must submit their DNA for CODIS, and (2) forensic samples – DNA obtained from crime scenes. Routinely these profiles are compared to determine if any forensic sample matches a known offender. If there is a match, that’s called a HIT or a CODIS HIT.

The FBI maintains the national system but there are multiple levels where DNA profiles are searched, including a state database in Georgia.  Georgia began using CODIS in 1998.  Since that time, GBI has identified more than 3500 CODIS HITS (2013 GBI Press Release). Many of these hits relate to previously unsolved cases, or “cold cases.”

But how do CODIS hits relate to innocence cases?

GIP was interested in CODIS hits that relate to solved cases where a defendant had already been convicted. Our question was this – Do any of these hits point to someone other than the convicted defendant?  Unfortunately for GIP, the FBI rules mandate that only law enforcement and prosecutors have access to CODIS hits.  There was simply no way for us to access the information we needed to answer this question.

Fortunately for GIP, PAC (a prosecuting agency with access to CODIS information) was willing to help us comb through CODIS hits.  For two years, a staff attorney and a paralegal at PAC (provided by the NIJ grant) investigated every CODIS hit since 2007 – that’s more than 2700 hits – to determine if any of the hits might lead to the discovery of an innocent person in prison.  (An interesting byproduct of this grant – PAC now has a comprehensive list of all CODIS hits since 2007 for Cold Cases!)

This investigation wasn’t easy.  For each case related to a CODIS hit, the PAC folks had to contact police departments and prosecutors throughout the state to obtain enough information to determine (1) if there was a conviction in the case; (2) who was convicted; (3) whether the convicted defendant was the person discovered in the CODIS hit; and (4) what were the basic facts that might explain the discrepancy between the person convicted and the person identified by the CODIS hit.

PAC discovered 43 CODIS hits that MIGHT relate to innocence claims. These hits were turned over to GIP for more in-depth investigation. In many of the cases, GIP uncovered an explanation for the CODIS hit that indicated it was not a case that warranted additional investigation as an innocence claim (e.g. the DNA belonged to someone the victim knew or the DNA that resulted in the hit could not be directly linked to the crime).  In 6 cases, however, there was no obvious explanation for the presence of DNA from someone other than the person convicted.  And those cases required an even more extensive investigation.  So far, GIP has been able to prove innocence in one of these cases.

Why was this CODIS project groundbreaking?

Because no one else has ever attempted to study CODIS hits to determine if that evidence could prove someone’s innocence.  AND we proved our theory, there are innocence claims hidden in CODIS hits.

Thanks to our former staff attorney, Christina Cribs, for helping me explain all this.

Next time – How GIP investigated CODIS hits.