Panel has questions about DNA testing for suspects

Panel has questions about DNA testing for suspects

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A DNA bill that couldn’t pass the Wyoming House last year showed Thursday morning that it’s still not ready for prime time.

The Senate Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee, picking up some bills that would normally have been assigned to the overloaded Judiciary Committee, heard testimony about “Katie’s Law,” Senate File 47, sponsored by Sen. Leslie Nutting (R-Cheyenne).

Katie’s Law, which has been passed by 22 states, is named after Katie Sepich, who was brutally attacked outside her New Mexico home in August 2003. She was raped, strangled, set on fire and abandoned at an old dump site.

The attacker’s skin and blood were found under the victim’s fingernails. Authorities used a DNA profile to match the evidence with the killer, who was in a New Mexico prison serving a sentence for burglary.

Wyoming already takes DNA profiles of inmates convicted of felonies, but SF 47 would go a step further and allow the state to take DNA samples from individuals arrested for, charged or indicted for felonies, including murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, kidnapping and abduction.

Nutting explained that for states that have passed the law, grants from the federal government have been made available to pay for any extra cost of the DNA testing. She said she doesn’t think it would amount to much additional spending.

But Chairman Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) said if the Legislature passes the bill and it does not obtain a federal grant, it would amount to an unfunded mandate for the state, and that troubles him.

Some panel members expressed concern that SF 47 contains a list of felonies covered under the bill, which could restrict some other crimes in which testing of suspects charged should occur. But Nutting and her co-sponsor, Rep. Ken Esquibel, D-Cheyenne, told the commitee it was the lack of such a list that led to the defeat of a similar measure in the House last year.

Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group opposed the bill. The Cheyenne attorney said while SF 47 would allow a suspect who has been found to not have committed a crime should not have to apply to have his or her DNA expunged from the state’s files. He said the process in cases of innocence should be automatic.

“It’s a sad thing to say, but we need to be reminded in our criminal justice system that it’s better for 10 guilty men to go free than to send one innocent man to prison,” Klein said. “People have heard, especially in sexual assault crimes, that DNA is 100 percent accurate. It is accurate as a science, but it is not dispositive in a case. Many remain cases of ‘he said, she said,’ and there are a lot of reasons why an innocent person would not want their DNA collected.”

He said the nation has a “CSI culture” that emphasizes DNA infallibility. “They say, ‘We’ve got your DNA, we’ve gotcha.’ It’s just not true,” Klein said. “People may have had sex, but the DNA doesn’t prove there was an assault.”

Burns said he wants to hear from a Wyoming prosector before taking a vote on the bill. He said the committee will meet again next Tuesday to hopefully get some more information about SF 47

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