Maryland Seeks DNA of Criminals
By Amy Argetsinger and Craig Whitlock
Maryland law enforcement officials want to collect the genetic fingerprints of almost every violent felon in the state for a database that could help identify suspects from traces of physical evidence found at crime scenes.
A bill now under consideration by the state legislature would greatly expand the state's current database, which now contains the DNA records of a few hundred convicted sex offenders, and make Maryland a key part of a growing national database that already has aided more than 600 investigations.
Civil libertarians protest such registries on the grounds that they violate convicts' privacy and make them perpetual suspects.
But U.S. courts generally have upheld the constitutionality of such databases. And state police say the expanded DNA registry – with data on nearly 13,000 criminals – would vastly improve their ability to solve the baffling cases for which they have no suspects.
Investigators could analyze blood, semen or saliva found at a crime scene, then compare its unique genetic code with the thousands recorded in the database.
"It's a pretty clear-cut way of solving crime," said Louis C. Portis, director of the state police crime laboratory. The same technology also can clear people who have been wrongly accused.
The Maryland bill is being promoted by the lieutenant governor and House speaker and is expected to pass easily.
The bill will be heard in Annapolis today by the House Judiciary Committee. It would add murder, robbery, first-degree assault and attempts to commit any of those crimes to the list of offenses for which convicted criminals must submit to DNA testing.
Maryland created its database in 1994, but has required only convicted rapists and sexual abusers to provide DNA samples. Virginia, which opened its database in 1990, already tests almost all felons, including juveniles. The District does not collect DNA from prisoners.
Virginia has used its database to turn up suspects for several unsolved crimes. Across the country, statewide databases linked by the FBI have been used to run nationwide genetic dragnets. Last fall, the system helped target an adult suspect in the slaying of an 11-year-old Chicago girl, which originally had been blamed on two young boys.
Although every state now has legislation authorizing criminal DNA databases, only 42 have theirs up and running. So far, however, Maryland's DNA registry has been of relatively little use to investigators. It contains only about 1,200 analyzed records, with another 2,300 blood samples still awaiting analysis, and most are those of incarcerated convicts.
However, the database – which also contains DNA fingerprints found at unsolved crime scenes – helped investigators determine that two Prince George's County rapes were committed by the same man, who has not been identified.
Maryland now draws blood samples from prisoners to extract DNA but is considering taking saliva samples instead, which officials say would be easier and less invasive.
Like most states, Maryland started its database with sex offenders because they are the criminals most likely to leave DNA samples, in the form of semen.
The move to expand the types of criminals who must submit to DNA testing is prompted by the fact that DNA can be collected in various ways at crime scenes – from saliva left in a bite mark, for instance, or skin scrapings found under a victim's fingernails.
"The people we're collecting from are violent offenders," Portis said. "Those are the type that go out and repeat violence and leave DNA."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland plans to challenge the bill. Suzanne Smith, a lobbyist for the group, says the state has made a compelling argument for collecting DNA from sex offenders but has not justified its expansion of the program.
"Something as unique and personal and fragile as DNA should give great cause for concern," she said. "I don't think anyone should ever be comfortable that the government is collecting a database of personal information."
But Portis said Maryland's system has several safeguards to protect privacy and avoid wrongful accusations. Even if identified through the database, suspects still must be tested again before investigators can link them to particular crimes.
The new DNA testing would be phased in over four years. In the first year, the state would test the 3,200 convicted violent felons who are are released from state prison or local jails or are sentenced to probation without serving time.
In the second and third years, the state would test the convicted violent felons who are in state prisons. In the fourth year, state would start testing newly convicted felons as they enter the system.
By the end of the four years, state officials expect to have 11,700 new records in the DNA database and would add a couple thousand to it every several years.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company