Unintended consequences

July 20, 2006

When Raymont A. Hopewell walked away from a work-release program in Baltimore in September 2004, he didn't just skip out on prison. He eluded a potentially greater threat - the surrender of his DNA. The 34-year-old was among thousands of inmates on a backlogged list to have their DNA collected as state law required. His escape ensured that he would retain that significant piece of evidence for another year. Over the next 12 months, police have since charged, the convicted drug dealer murdered three elderly people, assaulted four others and raped a woman. But that's not the worst of it.

As reported by The Sun's Stephen Kiehl, Mr. Hopewell was arrested in September 2005 for the murder of an 82-year-old man. What police would soon discover is that Mr. Hopewell's DNA, collected a month later, linked him to the rapes and murders of two elderly women, dating to 1999 and 2001. If prison officials had collected Mr. Hopewell's DNA in a timely fashion during his 2004 incarceration, it's likely that he never would have been put in a halfway house - and three elderly people might be alive today. It's a plausible theory - and a tragic consequence of a public safety system underequipped to meet the demands placed on it by state lawmakers. Why Mr. Hopewell, who had been convicted of drug offenses, theft, battery and a deadly weapons charge, was in a halfway house is another matter.

The Maryland State Police, the agency charged with collecting and processing inmate DNA, knew from a June 2004 legislative audit that it had fallen way behind in collecting prisoners' samples for its state databank. It did not have the staffing - despite a budget request for additional resources - to keep pace with state lawmakers' decision to expand the list of felons required to give their DNA. State police acknowledged the problem then and rallied local law enforcement to help collect samples.

Since then, the backlog of 8,300 cases has dropped to about 1,450. It should decline further with new technology and an improved turn-around time to process the samples, state police say. A management review of the state police's forensic sciences division is under way to assess its staffing needs.

State lawmakers should pay close attention here: Requiring state agencies to do more without providing the funds to accomplish a mandate is a setup for failure. DNA technology has proved invaluable to law enforcement in this state: Maryland's DNA databank has aided 504 investigations and identified 263 offenders as suspects in crimes.

But in the case of Raymont Hopewell, the incriminating evidence arrived too late to uncover a drug offender's secret violent past.

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