Tag Archives: DNA

DNA Evidence: Not Necessarily a Guarantee of Anything.

On Monday, a divided United States Supreme Court approved Maryland’s DNA law, signifying a major change for DNA collection.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Maryland v. King expands DNA collection to include people arrested —prior to their proverbial day in court.  More than half of the states allow DNA samples to be routinely taken from people under arrest.  Right now Massachusetts is not among those states. Every state including Massachusetts, however, does collect DNA from people after they are convicted of crimes for purposes of identifying repeat criminal offenders.

There have been legislative proposals filed for several years here in Massachusetts that would mirror Maryland’s DNA collection law.  There have even been attempts to accomplish the same thing by attaching amendments to the state budget.   Opponents, including civil libertarians and defense attorneys, argue that this would be unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy.

Supporters of these bills have described them as simple and balanced – protecting the innocent while enhancing public safety.  A cheek swab test would be taken at the time of arrest and investigators could use that information for links to other crimes.  Supporters of these bills maintain that there is no risk associated with any of this for an innocent person.  They claim that DNA information would not be entered into any state database until after a felony conviction and would expunge the DNA evidence from any person ultimately found not guilty. 

Not so fast! Despite what some say, there is a whole lot of risk associated with DNA and its collection.  Here in Massachusetts we’ve enjoyed some recent victories in the area of DNA.  In 2012, Governor Patrick signed the DNA Access Bill, which gives individuals convicted of crimes a chance to use DNA evidence to prove their innocence and overturn their convictions if they meet certain criteria.  We’re proud of our work in this area.  The reality is that sometimes our justice system gets it completely wrong.  Anything that actually ensures public safety and brings a sense of confidence to our justice system is good. 

There is just no way that DNA evidence can be described as an incontrovertible link to innocence or guilt.  There is a common perception that DNA is faultless and flawless as far as forensic evidence goes.  It can help convict the guilty while freeing the innocent, but there are limits to the power of DNA.   DNA can be misused, human error can come into play and we are still learning these lessons from the Annie Dookhan catastrophe. Expansion of DNA databases may well be logical and appropriate to identify individuals who commit certain types of violent crimes. Moving beyond those purposes is where the rights and privacy of individuals must be weighed against the benefits of this type of expansion. 

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Celebrations in the Senate Before the Summer Recess

In the days and even hours leading up to the legislature’s unofficial summer recess last week, there was a flurry of activity in the State House.  In the hubbub of lawmaking that took place, there were a few no-brainer bills that passed, but more contentious ones – like the court reorg bill– came down to the wire.  Among the bills passed was the long awaited and widely supported alimony reform law.  Sailing through with unanimous support in both branches of the legislature, it will make its way to the governor’s desk once agreement is reached between House and Senate differences in the bill.  Also receiving a unanimous vote in the Senate was the bill to provide post-conviction access to DNA.

To an outside observer, or any of the tourists trying to peek their heads inside the jam-packed upper gallery of the Senate Chamber last Thursday, it may have seemed like just another formal session in the Senate.  Senators milled around the chamber, staff came and went.  At 1 p.m., the Senate convened and immediately went into a recess.  Thirty minutes later, Senate President Murray was at the rostrum long enough to recite the pledge of allegiance before recessing again for a few moments.  Over the next hour, after a whirl of activity on various Senate bills, alimony reform was finally taken up and engrossed by a roll call vote of 36-0.  Applause broke out in the Senate Gallery and in the hallway outside.

Next up: access to DNA.  Senator Cynthia Creem took the floor and spoke in support of the bill.  She recognized Betty Anne Waters and the BBA for their contribution to this legislative effort, drawing members of the Senate to stand and applaud their work.  Seven amendments to the bill were then taken up.  Of those seven, two were withdrawn, one was rejected, and the remaining four were adopted.  When the roll call was taken, the bill passed 37-0.

It may have looked easy and effortless, but it actually felt chaotic.  The day before, Senate Ways & Means released the access to DNA bill with improvements and changes.  After reading through the revised bill, the BBA had a few suggestions and asked Senator Creem to file an amendment, to which she agreed.  On the morning of the scheduled Senate debate, other senators filed even more amendments to the bill.  These last minute amendments sparked discussions in the Senate hallways and on email.  Even in the moments before the start of the Senate session we were still trying to fix loopholes that the additions to the bill had opened up.

Then, finally…a signal from the Senate floor.  A senior Senate staffer looked towards the gallery and flashed a thumbs up. Just like that, it was over.  The bill had passed unanimously, capping off a monumental afternoon for those who had labored for years on this issue.  While pausing to take in what had just happened, it was nice to see the House sponsor, Representative John Fernandes, waiting one floor down outside the Senate Chamber.  Rep. Fernandes indicated that he is looking forward to taking this issue up on the House side once the legislature comes back from its summer recess.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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