DNA link falls into Fla. legal loophole
By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published May 21, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Hans Christian Anderson's explanations were as disturbing as the crime he was accused of committing: beating and raping a 13-year-old girl in a church basement.
He hallucinated and claimed to hear commands from God. His past was filled with hospitalizations and hints that he may have attacked others. In short, Anderson fit the profile of a deeply disturbed predator who moved from victim to victim.
But the very mental problems that may have provoked Anderson's alleged assault on an innocent girl in 1998 are keeping police from connecting him to other crimes around the country.
For more than eight years, Anderson has been deemed too mentally ill to stand trial. And because he remains "mentally incompetent" instead of convicted, Florida law forbids police from submitting his DNA sample to CODIS, the massive DNA database run by the FBI that plays a crucial role in solving crimes.
That restriction is now preventing police from connecting hundreds of seriously mentally ill people like Anderson, 49, to other rapes and attacks. In St. Petersburg alone, police believe he raped two other women in 1998.
"Recidivism is the main problem with these types of people, " said Sgt. Katy Connor-Dubina of the Police Department. "It's a loophole that has got to be fixed."
Every year in Florida, hundreds of people are deemed too mentally incompetent for trial. Usually, they're sent to state mental hospitals to get treatment and medication in an effort to make them competent to understand the charges they face.
Last year, the Department of Children and Families took custody of 1, 437 accused felons who were judged incompetent. The DCF restored 946 accused felons to competency so they could stand trial. Anderson is being held at a treatment center.
Those who cannot be restored to competency are among the most mentally ill.
Anderson, who also went by the name Benjamin Jack Johnson, had a history of hospitalization that stretched back to the early 1980s, according to court testimony.
One psychologist who examined Anderson testified that he had a record of at least 20 hospitalizations and had been accused of sexual abuse, assault and battery. Anderson left hospitals against medical advice despite "actively hallucinating on the medication they were giving him, " Dr. Robert Berland said.
In 1998, Anderson was working as a loader for St. Luke's Thrift Store. He was 6 feet tall, weighed 200 pounds, and had tattoos of dragons and snakes on his arms.
He persuaded a 13-year-old student at St. Paul's Catholic Church to follow him to the basement to help with work, then brutally beat and raped her, police said. Church workers discovered him and called the authorities.
"He was hearing command hallucinations, which he believed were from God always, " Berland testified. "And so the content of one of those commands was to rape her or 'We will kill you.' "
* * *
The FBI's CODIS database has been crucial to helping police departments solve crimes when they have few leads. In Florida alone, it has helped in more than 5, 700 investigations since its inception in 1990.
The database works by matching DNA samples of suspects submitted by law enforcement agencies to thousands of "profiles" assembled from DNA samples taken from crime scenes across the country.
But under Florida law, police can only submit the DNA samples of those convicted of certain crimes to the database. And because Anderson and others deemed mentally incompetent can't stand trial, they are not considered convicts.
The result: Police can't enter Anderson's sample into CODIS, even though they think he's responsible for many other assaults.
"The way the law reads, there has to be a conviction, " said Kristen Perezluha, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Sgt. Connor-Dubina of the Police Department recently submitted to the department's legal office a proposal to change the law to allow submissions of DNA samples from those deemed mentally incompetent.
"The most unstable and dangerous of offenders are not in the DNA database, " she wrote. "Given the recidivistic nature of many crimes, such as sexual battery, a likelihood exists that the individual who committed the crime being investigated committed other crimes prior to his capture. ... Many cases in the future will be entered but no offender will be identified in CODIS."
Susanne Homant, executive director of the Florida chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she wasn't aware of any major push to change the law concerning DNA submissions at the state level. She said her organization would have to review any proposed change before deciding its merits, especially one that might raise privacy concerns.
A court hearing on Anderson's status is scheduled for May 30. Kendall Davidson, who is prosecuting the case, says he hopes to get a competency ruling and move the process along.
In previous court filings and testimony, psychologists have said that Anderson can't talk to his attorney and doesn't understand the charges he faces.
"Because of his belief that God would directly intervene in the outcome of his trial, he expressed no concern that the numerous witness statements would serve to facilitate his conviction, " wrote Berland in a letter to Anderson's public defender, Ron Eide.
"The defendant appeared to mostly believe that he would be dead and resurrected before his case reached its conclusion, again, as a result of God's direct intervention, " Berland wrote.
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.