Collect the swabs

July 30, 2004

WHEN POLICE charged convicted murderer Alexander Wayne Watson Jr. earlier this month with three unsolved killings, the arrest was due in large part to the presence of the prisoner's DNA in a state databank. The success of using such repositories to crack unsolved crimes has been shown repeatedly. But if the DNA samples aren't collected and banked, they won't be much good to law enforcement, will they?

Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, the state police superintendent, appeared this week before state lawmakers to respond to a critical legislative audit that faulted the state police for failing to collect thousands of DNA samples. And he didn't make excuses about the job not getting done. How refreshing! Colonel Hutchins didn't blame his predecessors, though he could have - it was under their tenure that the problems began. He didn't complain about a lack of personnel, even though state law has steadily increased the collection workload. He didn't criticize state budget officials who cut a previous funding request to hire more staff.

The colonel forthrightly accepted responsibility for nearly all of the problems outlined in the audit - and pledged to rectify the situation.

But Colonel Hutchins' response on another matter was insufficient. He should take up the audit's recommendation regarding the tracking of court-issued protective orders. It asked the state police to devise procedures as required by law to help jurisdictions check that such orders are logged into law enforcement databases. The 1999 murders of two children by their father raised concerns about the reliability of these databases.

When Richard W. Spicknall II went to buy a handgun, state police had no record of a restraining order that had been filed against him. He was able to purchase the gun, which he used to kill his 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

As for the state police's DNA databank troubles, there's no disputing that the agency has a big backlog. But the number of mandated DNA samples has increased since the law took effect in 1994. Then, the collection pertained to sex offenders. Today, all felons, probationers and parolees included, must provide their genetic fingerprint to the state - a requirement recently upheld by Maryland's highest court. Since the audit, which covered 2000 through 2003, the backlog has increased from 8,300 to 9,600.

Colonel Hutchins has enlisted the help of state prison officials in collecting the samples - it requires swabbing the inside of an inmate's cheek. Crime scene technicians also have been recruited to reduce the backlog, and Colonel Hutchins is reaching out to county sheriffs to assist, his spokesman says.

Other agencies, especially the state corrections system, shouldn't hesitate to lend a hand. The reason is borne out by the state police findings: Law enforcement's use of Maryland's DNA databank has aided in 156 criminal investigations.

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