NY law enforcers push for expanded DNA database

PHOTO: treeumph via flickr.com

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to make New York the first state to require every convicted criminal to provide a DNA sample was endorsed Wednesday by law enforcers who listed among their reasons the need to satisfy potential jurors who've come to expect the scientific evidence from watching crime dramas.
The state currently limits DNA testing to certain felony and misdemeanor convictions, meaning about 48 percent of criminals are required to give samples. Pending legislation would expand the law to cover all remaining criminal misdemeanors, along with felonieslike aggravated animal cruelty or driving while intoxicated that fall under statutes such as traffic and business law.
"DNA is undoubtedly the single most important advancement of a generation," Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III said during a news conference in Buffalo, attended by dozens of law enforcers from surrounding towns and counties who support the measure.
Not only does DNA evidence help solve crimes and exonerate the innocent, officials said, it's a tool jurors now look for, thanks to any number of television crime shows.
"Frankly, I think jurors expect it now," said Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante, who said prosecutors have begun asking potential jurors if they'd have trouble convicting someone without DNA evidence.
"Jurors want to hear and see evidence that's better than 'I saw the guy do it"' from an eyewitness, he said.
The New York State Sheriff's Association has endorsed the proposal.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, however, called for safeguards against potential pitfalls, including the risk for human error in collecting and interpreting results.
"Under optimal circumstances, DNA evidence is a precise law enforcement tool," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. "But research shows that DNA evidence is highly susceptible to human error, fraud and abuse.
"Any expansion must include more robust standards of accountability. Without effective safeguards, a massive expansion of the DNA databank will lead to flawed prosecutions and miscarriages of justice," she said.
The expansion passed in the Republican-led Senate three weeks ago and is pending in the Assembly. It also could become law as part of Democrat Cuomo's budget bill, expected to pass by April 1,said Republican Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a former state trooper and Erie County sheriff. He called DNA "the most effective tool at law
enforcement's disposal since the advent of fingerprinting."
Created in 1996, the state's DNA databank initially required only convicted murderers and rapists to submit samples of their genetic markers to be catalogued and cross-matched against unsolved crimes. The law was expanded in 1999, 2004 and 2006, each time broadening the spectrum of convicted criminals to be tested.
The 2006 expansion requiring samples from those convicted of misdemeanor petit larceny solved 965 crimes, including 51 murders, 222 sexual assaults, 117 robberies and 407 burglaries, said Elizabeth Glazer, the state's deputy secretary for public safety.
Sedita pointed out a high-profile western New York case in which a serial rapist and killer committed crimes for years while an innocent man, Anthony Capozzi, was wrongly imprisoned for the crimes. Sedita said that had Altemio Sanchez been required to submit DNA at the time of his first conviction, for soliciting a prostitute in 1991, he would not have gotten away with an estimated dozen rapes and two homicides committed in the following years.Sanchez eventually was convicted, and Capozzi was freed, on DNA evidence.
Cuomo has included $700,000 in his budget proposal for the expansion this year and $1.4 million in subsequent years, Glazer said. Each DNA test kit, which includes a brush to swab inside the person's mouth, costs about $30.

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