DNA dilemma: when should police take a sample?

State lawmakers are debating a bill to allow police to take a sample of someone’s DNA after that person has been arrested for a felony. Currently, that’s only allowed once someone has been convicted.

During a hearing on the issue Tuesday, Jayann Sepich shared the story of her 22-year-old daughter, Katie.

Katie was a student at New Mexico State University in 2003 when someone raped, strangled and set her on fire. Her killer left DNA evidence, but investigators had no match for it.

Jayann said she figured whoever killed Katie was bound to commit another crime. She figured once that person got caught, police would take a DNA sample and that would be it.

But, it doesn’t work that way.

“There are no words to explain the agony. There are no words to convey, 10 years  later, the sense of loss, the depth of despair,” said Jayann.

She lobbied for and her state passed a law allowing police to take a DNA sample at the time of arrest.

She came to Harrisburg Tuesday to encourage state lawmakers to do the same in Pennsylvania. About half of the country’s states, including Maryland, allow for that.

“I would urge you to pass this, this year. Now. Before one more life is lost,” Jayann told lawmakers.

This summer a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld Maryland’s law, saying it doesn’t violate the Constitution.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania still has reservations about the practice, questioning how effective it is.

“Thirty-three thousand samples collected over a three-year period. Thirteen additional convictions. Now, if you believe that’s enough to vote yes on this bill, I respect your opinion,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU. “It turns a fundamental concept of our criminal justice system, innocent until proven guilty, on its head.”

State police raised concerns about handling the existing caseload of DNA testing. The state’s labs already have a backlog, an issue police fear could be exacerbated by this proposed law.

“There are questions of whether this process is worthwhile or cost-effective, as this broad approach may not be the best from an efficiency standpoint,” said Lt. Col. Scott Snyder.

He added the law would necessitate hiring an additional 30 staff members and either building or leasing a new lab facility. Snyder pointed out the bill doesn’t identify a “direct funding source,” and that could lead to a “perpetual funding struggle.”

District attorneys support the bill, pointing to the ability to solve more cases in a quicker amount of time. Even the law’s opponents don’t dispute that. Instead, they question how substantial the increase in convictions will be.

In Katie Sepich’s case, police arrested a man about three months after her murder on unrelated charges. It wasn’t until three years after that, that Gabriel Avila was found guilty of another unrelated crime. His DNA was taken and matched the DNA evidence taken in Katie’s case.

Avila eventually confessed to Katie’s murder and pleaded guilty in court.  A judge sentenced him to 69 years in prison.