ANNAPOLIS – The increased use of genetic testing in criminal cases has prompted politicians, police officers and lawyers to push for laws expanding and safeguarding genetic evidence.
Two proposals heard Thursday in a Senate committee would require state officials to save scientific evidence from most cases for the duration of a prisoner’s sentence and to collect DNA samples from all persons convicted of felonies.
Maryland’s law requires genetic samples be collected only from people convicted of sex offenses, murder, robbery or first-degree assault.
Meanwhile, DNA evidence collected in a criminal investigation is only kept on file for three years.
The scientific evidence provided by DNA testing could help convict criminals and exonerate the innocent, said police officers and defense lawyers at the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing.
“It’s going to set a lot of inmates free,” said Van Caldwell, spokesman for the Innocence Project’s Capital Region. “Together (the bills) would be a great step forward for justice.”
Maryland has been at the forefront of DNA testing. In June 1993, Marylander Kirk Bloodsworth became the first person in the country released from prison because of genetic testing. The Baltimore County Circuit Court overturned his 1986 rape and murder conviction after DNA testing proved he could not have committed the crime.
More recently, the Baltimore City Police Department was featured on the ABC news show “20/20” because of its backlog of more than 5,000 unanalyzed DNA samples.
“The way DNA testing is now, it’s like we take a picture of themselves and leave it on the floor undeveloped,” said Baltimore City Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. “We don’t develop it.”
Police departments have had some success solving old cases by matching archived DNA samples with that collected from new cases. For example, DNA evidence matched between an old, solved case and new one can help police identify a rapist, even if the victim cannot.
After running 39 of its DNA samples through a national database of genetic material with the help of “20/20,” Baltimore City Police closed eight old cases. One was a serial rapist found in Virginia after committing a drug offense.
“This is yet another tool in our crime fighting efforts,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, sponsor of the increased testing bill.
Nationally, there is a backlog of about a half million unanalyzed DNA samples, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The federal government has allocated more than $170 million to address the problem.
Collecting the increased number of DNA samples in the state would cost about $1.6 million, according to the state’s Department of Legislative Services. Proponents of the bill assume the money will not be available in this tight budget year, but asked the committee to pass the bill even without the funds.
“We’d go after federal dollars for that,” said Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. “We’d like you to pass it even without the money.”
The House Judiciary Committee has already passed a bill to lengthen the time DNA evidence is held in state archives. The Senate committee seemed supportive. Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, only questioned whether it would be wiser in Maryland to apply the bill only to violent felonies. “Maryland is quite liberal in making things a felony,” Baker said. “We made kicking a dog a felony last year.” – 30 – CNS-2-21-02