Saratoga and Washington county officials hail Gov. Cuomo's DNA database proposal

by jeeg 25. January 2012 22:55

Public safety officials and crime victims’ advocates are rallying around a proposal to expand the state’s DNA database, saying it would help solve cases and exonerate the innocent.

The proposal, included in the executive budget Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled earlier this month, would require those who are convicted of any felony or any penal law misdemeanor charge to submit a DNA sample. Officials say that person’s unique genetic material would be stored in the state’s library and could be used to close cold cases, as has been done in the past.

Current state law allows for DNA collection from those convicted of most felony and some misdemeanor charges, but Warren County District Attorney Kathleen B. Hogan said that only translates to about 48 percent of convicted offenders. She likened it to a doctor having medicine that can cure a patient, but only being able to use it half the time.

“We’d never tolerate that,” Hogan said prior to a Monday afternoon press conference at the Warren County offices. “We’d say it’s preposterous. It’s exceptionally preposterous that we don’t have all-crimes’ DNA.”

DNA is currently collected from individuals convicted under the state’s penal law, including all felony charges and a selected 36 misdemeanors. Cuomo’s plan would require anyone who is convicted of any penal law misdemeanor — about 180 additional charges — or felonies under other branches of the state law, like agricultural and vehicular offenses, to submit their DNA.

It’s a relatively quick, painless and inexpensive process, Hogan said, and has potentially life-saving applications.

In 1999, Raymon McGill, formerly of Schenectady, was convicted of petit larceny, a misdemeanor, but wasn’t required to submit his DNA sample.

Between 2000 and 2004, he raped an elderly woman in her home, raped and murdered another woman, then beat and shot a man to death. DNA evidence linked the three crimes to the same offender, but law enforcement officials didn’t know whose DNA it was until March 2005. That’s when McGill was convicted of robbery and was required to submit his DNA.

Proponents of the database’s expansion said if McGill’s DNA was on file following the petit larceny conviction, they could have linked him to the first rape and prevented the two murders and the robbery.

“It prevents future crime, and it makes our community safer,” said Maggie Fronk, the executive director of Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County. She said the expansion would have significant implications in unsolved cases of “stranger rape,” in which victims don’t know their attackers.

The state’s DNA databank was last restructured in 2006, Hogan said, and made misdemeanors like petit larceny DNA-eligible.

Since then, she said, samples collected from convicted petit larcenists have been linked to 965 previously unsolved crimes, including 222 sexual assaults, 51 murders, 117 robberies and 404 burglaries.

The database has helped solve 2,700 crimes statewide, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, and Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira said expanding the database would only increase that number.

“When you widen the pool,” Sira said, “the ability to close out cases that have gone unsolved for long periods of time would greatly increase.”

It could also help exonerate individuals, Hogan said. According to the DCJS, 27 New Yorkers have been cleared of crimes for which they were previously imprisoned.

But not everyone is on board with the proposal.

Jeremy Gruber, the president of the Council for Responsible Genetics in Manhattan, called the concept “incredibly premature.” He said he’d like to see studies done that could prove the state could handle the increased workload before speaking of expansion.

“There’s a false assumption that bigger is better when it comes to DNA databases,” he said. “You increase the risk there will be false matches and laboratory mistakes because the laboratories will be overwhelmed.”

Proponents said the state’s crime lab in Albany will be able to handle the increased caseload without a backlog.

Under the state’s current system, an individual who is convicted of a DNA-eligible offense gets the inside of his or her cheek swabbed. State police convert that genetic material into a unique, numerical profile that goes into the state’s database. From there, it’s compared to forensic evidence collected at crime scenes and can ultimately link crimes that may have been committed by the same individual.

The match is strictly science, Hogan said. Crime lab technicians don’t have access to an individual’s race, name or criminal history. They relay matches to the DCJS, who confirm the person’s identity.

It’s important to note the samples aren’t collected at the time of the charge, Hogan said. They are taken only after individuals have gone through the legal system and have been convicted.

Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III did not return a call seeking comment for this story, but he has previously said individuals who later have their convictions overturned have their DNA expunged.

Michael Cignoli, Saratogian


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