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DNA sampling advocate hopes W.Va. policy is changed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A New Mexico woman who wants police to collect DNA as part of their standard booking procedures hopes West Virginia becomes the next state to adopt such a policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week, in a 5-4 decision, that law enforcement officers can collect DNA from swabs from inside a suspect's cheek and it does not amount to an "unreasonable search."

The dissenting justices were an unusual coalition of perhaps the Court's three most liberal justices, Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, and its most outspoken conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia.

In West Virginia, DNA swabs are only taken from people convicted of a crime and incarcerated, not those who have simply been arrested. That information is then sent off to the FBI's system of DNA profiles known as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Jayann Sepich, of New Mexico, started the group DNA Saves, a non-profit organization aimed at getting police in all 50 states to collect DNA samples following an arrest of any kind. Twenty-six states have passed such policies.

Sepich also pushed for West Virginia to change its policy in 2008, but proposed legislation never got off the ground. Civil liberty groups cited privacy concerns and feared the practice could lead to increased arrests or government tracking.

Similar bills have been proposed every year since then, primarily by Republican legislators, but have never gotten off the ground.

Sepich said that those privacy concerns are unfounded. A DNA swab doesn't capture the entire DNA strand, but instead just a profile of 13 markers isolated from some 3 billion.

"Those 13 markers were specifically selected by genetic scientists because they have no potential of revealing anything private about you," she says. "There are no names, only a number. The number is only matched back to a name if a match is made."

Sepich knows the value of increased DNA sampling. Her daughter Katie was raped and murdered in 2003. Katie Sepich's attacker went unknown for several years until DNA from an unrelated crime matched the suspect. If that suspect had been swabbed during an earlier arrest for a lesser crime, police would have caught him much sooner.

Sepich began advocating for more DNA sampling on behalf of Katie and other victims' families. New Mexico lawmakers passed "Katie's Law" in 2006, which requires DNA sampling from most felony arrests go into the CODIS system.

"The law passed on midnight and the very first arrestee matched back to a double homicide," she said.

Sepich watched several states pass and implement similar policies with no problems.

"They do the fingerprints, the mug shots and also a swab of the cheeks," she said. "It's a very simple procedure. It doesn't have to be medical personnel. A booking officer can do it."

Sepich's family is currently asking Congress to pass the Expanded DNA Collection Act, which would reimburse states for DNA sampling for the first year after they pass legislation.

Sepich said she would work with anyone in West Virginia who wants to see the policy expanded and hopes state legislatures see the benefits.

"We've seen all across the country when a state does not pass this law," she said. "Washington State chose not to do this and we saw a serial rapist there who could have been stopped."

Anthony Dias, a Washington man, was convicted of a series of rapes in 2008. Dias had been arrested several times on unrelated charges.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

 


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