Guest opinion: Saving DNA evidence helps convict real criminals

The Billings Gazette, billingsgazette.com
BYLINE: JESSIE MCQUILLAN and DAN WEINBERG The Billings Gazette
Link to Article

Billings, MT

The Montana House of Representatives has before it a bill that, if enacted, will measurably improve our justice system. Senate Bill 58, co-sponsored by Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, and Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, will have county law enforcement preserve DNA samples on evidence found in certain serious, violent crimes. The bill has already passed the Montana Senate.

The Montana Association of Counties doesn't want this bill to pass. Its lobbyists claim the expense of storing small bits of DNA evidence is too expensive for the counties to take on. They also claim that facilities that store evidence are already inadequate. There are stories of mold growing in one evidence room and poor documentation in others.

MACO's claims of poor evidence storage are true. Some of Montana's counties need to do a better job of maintaining evidence. The integrity of our justice system depends on it. Cases are determined by the quality of evidence. Their claims are not true that storing small bits of DNA evidence would be unpredictably and unnecessarily expensive.

If you were to talk with MACO representatives or listen to the legislative hearings, you would envision entire automobiles and sofas being stored in enormous warehouses. These requirements are false. SB58 requires only that small samples of DNA be preserved, and offers clear ways for counties to dispose of unnecessary evidence.

Since DNA was first used in forensic science, hundreds of people nationwide have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit. DNA tells a story with 100 percent accuracy. Matching biological material, assuming the evidence is maintained, is accurate and true. The other value of DNA is that it has shown us how fallible the other methods of forensic science have been. The true value of eyewitness identification, hair analysis, ballistics analysis and coerced confessions all diminish compared to DNA.

Texan Craig Watkins is the Dallas County District Attorney. When he took office several years ago, he was asked to sign a piece of paper that would have cleaned up the county's evidence room and destroyed samples of DNA. Mr. Watkins chose not to sign that paper. Since that day, over 40 men and women, convicted in Dallas and housed in Texas jails and prisons, have been exonerated using those samples of DNA. These were all innocent people, wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

If justice is not your chief concern but safety is, then consider this: In nearly 40 percent of the cases where someone has been exonerated of a crime using DNA, law enforcement went on to find the real perpetrator using that same sample of DNA. When we properly store and use DNA evidence, we get real criminals off the street.

If justice is not your chief concern but economics is, how do you reconcile the cost of storing small samples of DNA with the cost of imprisoning innocent people (more than $34,000 per inmate per year)? MACO complains that the state of Montana should store DNA, not the counties. Presently, the state crime lab does maintain some storage. The counties need to do their part.

What is the value of freedom for Montanans who have committed no crime? What is the value of justice? This is our Dallas moment.

Jessie McQuillan of Missoula is executive director for Montana Innocence Project. Dan Weinberg is the organization's founder and president.

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