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DNA collection from suspects could increase

The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)

Raleigh, NC

Nearly irrefutable, DNA evidence is becoming the weapon of choice in North Carolina's war against crime.

In 2007, it set free a man jailed nearly 19 years for a rape he didn't commit, and, this week, convicted the man who did. It was used this month to convict and condemn to death a soldier for three 25-year-old murders. And DNA has been cited as key in the arrest of Jason Keith Williford, charged with the high profile slaying of State Board of Education member Kathy Taft.

North Carolina has had a law on the books since 2003 that requires anyone convicted of a felony to submit a DNA sample for a statewide law enforcement database. A bill pending before the legislature would expand that to collect and record DNA samples from anyone charged with a felony regardless of the outcome of their cases. The samples would then be passed on to a N.C. State Bureau of Investigation DNA data bank, where they could be used in criminal cases or to identify missing persons.

The idea has the support of state Attorney General Roy Cooper, but is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which calls it an invasion of privacy. Sarah Preston, police director for the N.C. ACLU, said people mistakenly liken a DNA sample to a fingerprint.

"People forget that DNA contains your genetic blueprint, containing information about health issues and genetic markers about the person as well as his family members," Preston said.

Williford has a felony conviction in his past, but it was committed previous to enactment of the current DNA law.

Had his DNA been on record, it might have saved nearly six weeks of detective work and uncertainty for Taft's family.

In the end, DNA from a cigarette butt that investigators saw him toss linked him to Taft's case.

Stuck in committee

Last spring, a handful of state lawmakers sponsored the "Collect DNA Sample on Arrest" bill, which was referred to a House judiciary committee where it remained when the legislature adjourned for the year. The bill's primary sponsors, all Republican, are Reps. Pearl Burris-Floyd of Dallas, Darrell McCormick of Winston-Salem, Wil Neumann of Belmont and Thom Tillis of Cornelius.

Neumann said this week that more than 20 states, including Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia, already have passed similar laws. Neumann said that former President George W. Bush and the Obama administration have voiced support for the use of a DNA data bank to help get criminals off the streets.

Neumann said his research indicates that by the time most violent offenders are arrested, it is not the first time that they have committed a crime. A DNA data bank, he said, would prevent violent criminals from committing additional crimes.

Cooper said he plans to push the bill very hard during the next legislative session.

"It's an important tool to help us catch criminals and to exonerate innocent people," Cooper said.

But "Drug Arrests and DNA: Building Jim Crow's Database," a 2008 study, pointed out that though whites possessed and used more illegal drugs at higher rates than blacks or Latinos between 1994 and 2004, blacks were four times more likely to be arrested on drug offenses. The study suggested that as a consequence, an expanded genetic file system would be racially skewed with young African-American and Latino men disproportionately affected.

In the course of the Taft murder investigation, several men in the Wayland Heights neighborhood of Raleigh voluntarily allowed the police to swab the inside of their cheeks to help narrow the search for a suspect "The idea of taking someone's DNA before they have been arrested, much less indicted, without a search warrant and therefore without probable cause, raises a lot of privacy issues," said Sarah Preston, policy director for the N.C. ACLU.

Still, Preston thinks the police sweep in Wayland Heights was done with integrity. "We have fewer concerns when the police seek informed consent prior to voluntary DNA collection," she said, noting that Raleigh police also planned to destroy the samples taken from everyone eliminated as a suspect.

Modern 'fingerprint'

In Europe in recent years, even broader DNA sweeps have been used by the police. Preston said 5 percent to 6 percent of the British population has its DNA included in a national data bank. Many of the people who voluntarily submitted DNA samples for a specific investigation have learned that their DNA was permanently recorded in the national database.

"One-fifth of the people in the database had no record at all," Preston said. It is a waste of time and money for DNA labs that historically have long backlogs, she said.

A 2002 study, commissioned by state Sen. Kay Hagan found that as many as 20,000 rape kits with evidence that could have led to arrests sat on the shelves of police evidence rooms across the state because of that backlog.

The study noted that the State Bureau of Investigation was so overloaded that, barring an urgent appeal from a police department, the SBI's Molecular Genetics Section Laboratory only examined rape kits when investigators had identified a suspect for comparison.

Cooper brushed aside the privacy issues concerns.

"It's a 21st century fingerprint," he said. The proposed law, he pointed out, would include "a safety valve" that would allow innocent people to petition the courts to have their DNA taken from the statewide database.

"DNA is the next tool," Neumann said. "We are working with the detractors to try and get them on board."

News researchers Peggy Neal and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

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