Court of Appeals reverses exclusion of DNA evidence

Montgomery judge ruled defendant's rights violated in collecting for a profile

July 15, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court has reversed the decision of a Montgomery County judge who threw out DNA evidence against a rape suspect on the grounds that it was unconstitutional to collect his genetic profile for future use.

In a one-page order issued Tuesday, the Court of Appeals did not explain the reasoning behind the decision or mention the constitutional questions surrounding the 1994 law that led to the creation of the state's DNA databank, saying a more detailed opinion would be issued later. The court, which, by law, had to rule on the issue by Friday because of the nature of the appeal, sent the case of Charles Raines back to the county Circuit Court for trial.

Prosecutors hailed the ruling as a victory for the databank, and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he expected it to "broadly support" the state law authorizing DNA collection from all felons and some people convicted of misdemeanors.

Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said the high court's decision allows prosecutors to proceed with a case that relies heavily on an apparent database match.

`Powerful evidence'

"In this particular instance, this was clearly the evidence we have, but there is no more powerful evidence," Gansler said. "In the wake of the O.J. Simpson case, ... jurors have come to expect DNA evidence in the government's case or want to know why there wasn't any."

Raines' case reached the Court of Appeals this spring after state prosecutors appealed Circuit Judge S. Michael Pincus' finding that collecting and storing Raines' DNA profile violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

Raines, whose cheek was swabbed for DNA in 1999, was indicted in a 1996 rape last year after his DNA profile in the databank yielded an apparent match to evidence in the case. Authorities later compared the evidence to a fresh sample from Raines and concluded that there was only one chance in 6 billion of the DNA matching anyone else, according to briefs filed in the case.

In briefs and arguments before the Court of Appeals, Curran's office argued that the database is a valid tool that serves a vital government interest and only minimally intrudes on felons, whose privacy rights already have been limited.

Curran noted yesterday that the database has been used to implicate suspects and to exonerate people who have been wrongly accused or convicted.

"So many of the cases have no fingerprints, no eyewitnesses" but have blood or semen, he said. "That happens again and again in a number of these terrible cases. If [DNA] is evidence we can say with a strong degree of certainty is accurate, we should be able to use it."

But defense attorneys said that unlike fingerprints, a genetic profile includes "intimate" information about a person. And DNA can be collected even in the absence of a "suspicion of criminal wrongdoing" - an important test for Fourth Amendment protections, said Stephen B. Mercer, Raines' attorney.

"The government already knows who the person is," he said. "They're taking DNA to investigate that person for a past crime or a future crime."

Likely starting point

Such databases will likely be a starting point for future expansion and intrusion on privacy, he said, noting the ability by some states to collect DNA samples from people who have been arrested but not convicted.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials say the databank, which has about 18,000 samples and another 11,000 awaiting analysis, is an important investigative tool in Maryland that had yielded more than 150 matches by July 7.

"We believe the law is valid, and we believe it is vital to law enforcement in the 21st century," said Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. The state police maintain the database.

And authorities noted the recent charges against Alexander Wayne Watson Jr., who was accused of committing three Anne Arundel County homicides more than a decade ago after his DNA profile was matched to evidence.

"The three murder cases ... certainly demonstrate the fact that DNA is just a very, very important tool to not only determine who committed the crime but to determine who didn't," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. "I can't imagine that such an important tool wouldn't be used or would be unconstitutional."

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