City mayor, police official support more DNA tests

State bill would broaden list of convicts who must submit genetic samples

February 22, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

It's as if criminals leave an undeveloped photograph of themselves at the crime scene, and we don't even bother to develop it.

That's how Baltimore police Commissioner Edward T. Norris described Maryland's use of DNA evidence yesterday to a state Senate panel weighing bills that would broaden the use of genetic testing as a tool to fight crime -- and prove innocence.

Legislation pushed by Norris and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley would expand the list of criminals required to submit DNA samples to state police, and establish a fund to help local police departments buy DNA equipment.

Current law requires people convicted of murder, rape, child abuse and aggravated assault to submit swabs from inside their cheeks to state police.

The police send the cell samples to a private lab, which produces a genetic profile. Police then enter that code into a statewide computer system, which allows them to look for matches with DNA samples taken from crime scenes or victims.

Maryland has entered 9,663 felon DNA profiles into its system -- compared with 72,925 in Virginia. Baltimore has a backlog of untested evidence from 5,000 cases, many of them rapes. "It's just an outrage," Norris said.

Proposals sponsored by Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Ann Marie Doory, both Baltimore Democrats, would expand that list to people convicted of any felony or of breaking and entering, a misdemeanor.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1 and be retroactive so police could take samples from about 20,000 felons who haven't been tested.

O'Malley and others argued that DNA evidence often links people who commit nonviolent felonies to more serious crimes. In November, for example, police charged Hubert Taylor Jr. of Baltimore with two 1997 rapes after he was arrested and accused of cocaine possession in Virginia, which tests all felons.

"Maryland is well behind other states in using DNA technology," O'Malley said. "Clearly, the ability to test all felons would tremendously impact our cold cases."

Another bill before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday, sponsored by Sen. Delores G. Kelley of Baltimore County and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore, both Democrats, would require police to preserve evidence that likely contains DNA for the duration of a felon's sentence.

A bill that passed hastily during the final minutes of last year's session requires the state to preserve such evidence for people convicted of manslaughter, murder, rape and other sex offenses, but only for three years.

The Kelley-Rosenberg bill is an effort to fix the shortcomings of the new law, which many lawyers say is too limited to offer help for those who might be wrongly convicted.

"Testing methods are going to get better," said Van Caldwell of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that has freed 99 people from death row since 1973. In 11 of those cases, DNA was used to prove a convict's innocence.

"What you may not be able to do in 2002, you probably are going to be able to do in 2004," Caldwell said.

In a tight budget year, however, both DNA proposals could meet resistance. Some police departments complain that they can't afford to store for decades items such as steering wheels and eyeglasses that could contain DNA.

Legislative analysts estimate that the bill backed by O'Malley would cost the state $1.6 million next fiscal year. In addition, the mayor would like $4 million from the state to buy equipment and hire technicians statewide.

O'Malley and Norris implored the committee to approve the bill because even if lawmakers refuse state funding to pay for additional DNA testing, the city could seek federal money.

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