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R.I. considers adopting DNA database for felons


A law that would require suspects arrested for certain felony crimes to submit their DNA to a nationwide database has been re-introduced into the Rhode Island General Assembly. The bills, sponsored by state Sen. David Bates, R-Barrington, and state Rep. Brian Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, are modifications of Katie's Law, originally instituted in New Mexico. 

The legislation is named for Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old who was raped and murdered and had her body set aflame and left at a dump in 2003. According to her mother, Jayann Sepich, the only conclusive evidence that law enforcement officials could find was the attacker's skin and blood under Katie's fingernails. Three years later, Katie's killer was identified when his DNA was matched with that found under her fingernails, but Sepich said he could have been brought to justice just three months after Katie's death when he was arrested after an aggravated burglary attempt if legislation like Katie's Law had been in place.

After her daughter's death, Sepich co-founded DNA Saves, an organization that advocates the further use of DNA in helping to solve crimes and save lives. According to the organization's website, 26 states have adopted legislation modeled after Katie's Law.

The legislation was first introduced in Rhode Island three years ago, but it failed to pass either branch of the General Assembly. The bill was reintroduced in 2010 and passed the Senate but was halted in the House of Representatives.

Sepich said taking a suspect's DNA has no downsides, but many organizations and lawmakers are against the adoption of Katie's Law. Some organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, believe that taking arrestees' DNA is a violation of privacy and civil rights. The DNA entered into the database has only 13 markers of the over 3 billion encoded in human DNA, and of those only the marker determining gender contains genetic information, Sepich said. The DNA is also not paired with names or social security numbers, she added. Each unique code is paired with an identification number, and the offender's name is revealed only after the DNA is matched.

Having a DNA match does not automatically lead to a conviction, since "the arrestees still have every right to a fair trial," Sepich said. "Their rights are still intact." Conversely, a lack of a DNA match helps protect the innocent. "DNA is truth. It's scientific truth," she added. "It exonerates immediately."

Much of the public opposition to Katie's Law stems from a lack of understanding of DNA testing, Sepich said. But she is currently working to help dispel misconceptions, she said. 

Most lawmakers in Rhode Island are now less worried about the civil rights aspects of Katie's Law, Bates said. "It clearly comes down to cost," he said. Considering the current state of the economy, many lawmakers are hesitant to adopt expensive legislation no matter how they feel about it ideologically, Bates added.

Bates and Sepich said the benefits of DNA collection and testing far outweigh its monetary costs, which might not be as high as some fear.

The current annual cost of using a DNA database in New Mexico is barely greater than the taxpayer money spent on investigating Katie's murder, Sepich said. The state also has the potential to receive money from the federal government to help offset the cost, Bates said.

Both Bates and Sepich, who will be visiting Providence next week, said they are optimistic about the legislation's prospects this time around.



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