Back in the 1990’s, Georgia Lt. Governor Mark Taylor made it a priority to build the state’s DNA crime database. He did this long before other states got on board, and for many years Georgia was rightly viewed as a leader in using DNA to solve violent crimes. Taylor was driven by his strong commitment to victims of rape and child molestation who had been denied justice. He did not heed the civil rights and convict rights lobbies who tried to stir up hysteria over using DNA to solve crimes (ironically, these same activists are howling over the Supreme Court’s utterly reasonable decision last week not to enshrine post-conviction DNA as a blanket, federal right, when 46 states already guarantee it, as even Barry Scheck admits: don’t believe virtually anything you read about this case on the editorial pages).
Taylor’s leadership on DNA databasing yielded an extraordinary number of database “hits” long before other states got their databases up and running. In 1998, only convicted and incarcerated sex offenders were required to submit DNA samples in Georgia, yet 13 repeat-offender rapists were immediately linked to other sexual assaults, and scores of “unidentified offender” profiles were readied to be used if those offenders were finally caught and tested.
The convicted-and-imprisoned-sex-offenders-only database also revealed a chilling reality: many of the prolific rapists whose DNA matched other sex assaults had only ever been convicted of non-sex crimes such as drug crimes, burglary, and robbery.
Any prosecutor of a certain age will tell you that, before DNA evidence, it was so difficult to prosecute rapists that prosecutors often made the choice to allow rapists to plead to non-sex offenses such as burglary just to (temporarily) get them off the streets. This strategy was directed at serial, stranger sex offenders who were known to the cops but managed to avoid conviction because the public was so resistant to finding anyone guilty of rape. Taylor’s database made this injustice to victims visible.
Unfortunately, the types of injustice (to victims) and justice (against offenders) the database revealed was of little interest to the media.
Nevertheless, for several years, Georgia’s DNA database quietly withstood efforts by “civil rights” activists to shut it down. In 2000, the legislature expanded DNA testing to all incarcerated felons: 70 crimes were immediately solved, including serial rapes committed by convicts who had no prior rape convictions.
In 2007, the legislature expanded the database again, adding felony probationers — that weird category, the existence of which should splash some cold water on heartfelt feelings that we are far too harsh in sentencing and imprisoning criminals. In the real world, even violent felons still routinely walk away with nothing more than probation for their crimes.
As of a year ago, thanks to the expansion of the database, 12 of these “felony probationers” were linked to serious crimes through DNA. That’s 12 fewer violent offenders on the streets.
Still, no paper. Few headlines. Fewer editorials. And, eventually, Georgia began to fall behind other states in DNA databasing.
As I write this, Florida Governor Charlie Crist has briefly emerged from his offender-kumbaya-fervor to sign a bill requiring all people arrested for felonies to submit DNA samples for analysis — just like they submit photographs and fingerprints. Florida now joins 20 other states that are using DNA to investigate and solve crimes (Denver D.A. Mitchell R. Morrissey has a good website explaining the use of DNA in the courts).
But Georgia still languishes on the list of states that do not require DNA samples to be drawn upon arrest for a felony. Here is a chart comparing state laws from the DNA Resource Report.
In 2008, the Georgia Legislature did pass Senate Bill 430, which started out as a felony arrestee DNA database bill but got watered down through the legislative process. It emerged as little more than a statement affirming that prosecutors may ask the GBI to check a suspect’s DNA sample against the existing database so long as “the sample was obtained through a search warrant, consent of the suspect, court order, or other lawful means.” Then it concludes: “The bureau [GBI] shall not add a DNA profile of any such suspect to any DNA data bank except upon conviction.”
In other words, a bill that started out attempting to add felony arrestees to the state database morphed into a bill specifically restricting arrestee DNA from being added to the state database. I’d like to know the story behind this watering-down, particularly as it occurred at the same time when other states were successfully expanding their DNA databases to include felony arrestee samples under certain conditions.
Why did Georgia fold? Is there another bill in the works?
If you still aren’t convinced that arrestee DNA databasing is an urgent need, take a look at the website for DNA Saves, the organization Dave and Jayann Sepich started after their daughter Katie was raped, strangled and set on fire in New Mexico in 2003. Her offender was arrested and convicted of several other crimes, but his DNA had never been databased, so her murder went unsolved and he went free to continue attacking women for three years after Katie’s death.
How many victims of murder and rape in Georgia would have been protected by such a law?
Meanwhile, here is a statement from FDLE commissioner Gerald Bailey to the St. Petersburg Times correcting some of its inaccurate and fear-mongering press on the issue of arrestee DNA:
A valuable tool in fighting crime
Your editorial regarding the new Florida Department of Law Enforcement DNA database legislation failed to provide the public with a full picture.
This initiative, once funded, will expand Florida’s DNA database to include samples from persons arrested for felonies. The process is no different from the way Florida already stores and handles fingerprints from arrests. Like the current law on fingerprints, the DNA legislation has provisions for removal of the file when a person arrested for a felony meets certain requirements.
The database in its current form has been a great investment for our citizens; every month it generates an astounding 230 hits. These hits match an unknown DNA sample left at a crime scene to a known felon whose DNA is already on file, or links two or more unsolved crimes. It’s an invaluable investigative tool.
Including felony arrests means more samples in the DNA database and more crimes solved. It also means crimes will be solved faster and, most important, crimes will be prevented. Taking DNA at the first felony arrest ensures that DNA is taken from those offenders who evade felony conviction time and time again. It ensures that DNA from the first felony will be matched to that offender’s next crime, halting further victimization and saving lives.
Florida becomes the 21st state to take samples from felony arrestees. There is no other tool that can prevent violent crimes as efficiently and effectively as this. The Legislature got it right. Our citizens expect this level of protection. I think they deserve it.
Gerald Bailey, commissioner, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Tallahassee
I certainly deserved it: too bad it wasn’t there to help me in Florida when I needed it. Worse, too bad it still doesn’t exist to protect victims in Georgia.
2 thoughts on “An Important Law Georgia Still Does Not Have: Arrestee DNA Databasing”
I agree with you in most of your posts but this one we disagree. Fingerprints and DNA are fundimentally different in the way they are used. Fingerprints are primarily used for identification purposes, rarely for assessing guilt. My fingerprints have been voluntarily submitted to the GBI for background checks. Where as DNA is uses often to prove guilt and is often used as one of the primary pieces in a case.
Therefore, the database should contain only convicted felons, not the accused as well. I completely agree with databasing all those in the system. Current inmates, parolees, and those on probation should be cataloged. It should end there, with the possible, rare exception of a court order. The reason for this is it removes due process. Even if the person was arrested for a crime, that does not mean they did it nor that they are a criminal. I might even go as to include a few misdemeanor charges but, as with felony charges, only after they have been found guilty in a court of law.
Hi Daniel. I’ll be writing about the recent Osborne decision and DNA next week. Here, let me clarify two things, one of which I didn’t write about very clearly. First, fingerprints are used extensively in investigating and prosecuting crime, even though they are also used for identification (which is why a background check involves checking them against various databases). Second, the laws I am discussing do have rules for removing DNA samples from databases (or not adding them) once charges are dropped or a person is acquitted — with, as you suggest, exceptions that must be sought proactively if there is a compelling reason to keep the sample. On the other hand, there definitely are departures from fingerprint database protocols in these laws — in several states, arrestees must request expungement, for example. The DNA Resource Report has a chart detailing state laws in its June report. In practice, I imagine there’s even more variations.
Interestingly, views on databasing of both fingerprints and DNA don’t fall along the usual political divide — there is moderate centrist support for them and strong opposition from both liberals and conservatives. Let’s talk about this more. I personally support a national fingerprint and photo I.D. and database, a view I know is not a very popular one.