On Deck In Annapolis

From climate change to criminal justice, legislators urged to take action

DNA from suspects can prevent crime

January 30, 2008|By Scott D. Shellenberger

These days, one of the most effective tools in preventing and fighting crime is a cotton swab. That's why the General Assembly should approve a measure that calls for the collection of DNA evidence from suspects arrested for violent crimes.

Opponents of the bill raise concerns about privacy. To understand why those concerns are unfounded, it is important to understand not only how DNA is used to solve crimes, but also the limits of forensic DNA analysis.

The forensic examination of DNA is conducted with commercially produced kits. These kits are used to examine 13 to 15 locations on the DNA, none of which has any genetic medical implication. Obtaining medical information in the context of forensic DNA examination would be difficult and expensive, as it would require an overhaul of forensic laboratories. Law enforcement agencies simply do not have the inclination or the resources to extract medical information from an individual's DNA.

Concerns about privacy issues must also be viewed in light of the prevention of violent crime that would result from the proposed legislation. The case of Anthony Jerome Miller illustrates this benefit.

In March 2001, a college student was followed as she walked through Towson. As she neared her home, she was grabbed from behind by a man who knocked her to the ground and raped her. The rape was reported to the police and biological evidence was recovered, but police were unable to identify a suspect.

In June 2001, a 12-year-old girl was walking home from school in Towson, not far from the first attack. A man grabbed her and placed his hand over her mouth, using his other hand to grab her by the throat. He then raped the girl. The victim was able to identify Anthony Jerome Miller as the attacker.

Mr. Miller's DNA was entered into the statewide DNA database, where it was found to match the evidence collected in the rape of the college student. Mr. Miller is serving a life sentence for that crime.

What makes the Miller case a compelling argument for passage of the proposed legislation? In November 2000, Mr. Miller had been arrested in Baltimore and charged with attempted first-degree rape. If DNA had been collected from Mr. Miller at the time of that arrest, Baltimore County police could have identified him as the person who had raped the college student, and Mr. Miller would have been arrested before he had the chance to rape again. In short, the statute would have prevented the rape of a 12-year-old girl.

DNA evidence is arguably the most valuable tool in law enforcement today. Its efficacy lies not only in identifying but also in eliminating suspects. In failing to collect this valuable evidence at the time of arrest, we act at our own peril. More important, we act at the peril of potential victims who are blithely ignorant of tortured, hypothetical and unfounded concerns about privacy.

The simple, effective measure proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley would reduce that peril. When government can do that, it is compelled by decency to do so.

Scott D. Shellenberger is the state's attorney for Baltimore County. His e-mail is statesattorney@baltimorecountymd.gov.

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