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More Crimes May Trigger DNA Collection

February 5, 2015

By Michael Melkonian
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “Hannah Graham would be alive today if Delegate Bell’s law had been passed 10 years ago. She would be alive and be a happy, successful student at the University of Virginia today.”

In a tense, late-night committee meeting, Delegate Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, used that frank invocation of a still-fresh wound to sway his colleagues to vote in favor of a bill that would bank DNA samples from more misdemeanor convictions, such as stalking and assault and battery.

The bill is sponsored by Del. Robert Bell, a Republican from Charlottesville, where Graham was abducted last September. After a massive search and national media frenzy, her remains were found more than a month later.

Jesse Matthew is a suspect in Graham’s case, as well as in a 2005 rape in Fairfax and in the 2009 disappearance of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington. Matthew had been convicted of a misdemeanor in 2010, but his DNA was not taken then.

The House Courts of Justice Committee endorsed Bell’s legislation on an 11-9 vote Wednesday night. It has been sent to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration before it can go to the full House of Delegates.

DNA already is taken from people convicted of several misdemeanors, such as some sex crimes. But House Bill 1928 would broaden the list of crimes that trigger DNA collection.

The bill’s opponents feared that this would violate the privacy of Virginia citizens.

“All you people who don’t like the big government are giving them the core makeup of your body,” said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. “The same people who make health-care decisions for us are now going to know our private information.”

Miller disputed that. He said taking DNA is like taking a fingerprint. And fingerprints are taken on arrest, while Bell’s legislation would require a conviction before DNA would be collected.

Democratic Del. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond sided with Habeeb.

“DNA is different from your fingerprint. If you really want to be paranoid, people can clone you off of your DNA. They cannot clone you off of your fingerprint,” McClellan said.

The DNA Data Bank has existed for about 20 years and is a crucial modern investigative tool used to solve both local and national cases, said Linda Jackson, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

The House Appropriations Committee now will look at whether the state budget can absorb the costs of taking about 25,000 more DNA samples per year. The state Department of Planning and Budget has put the cost at about $650,000.

But HB 1928 – like every other bill scrambling to get passed through the complex process of committees and floor votes – is running out of time. If it doesn’t pass a vote on the House floor by Tuesday, the bill is effectively dead for the session.

However, there is a backup: Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, has filed a companion bill in the upper chamber. His proposal, SB 1187, has been approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. It is currently before the full Senate.

Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, introduced a measure similar to Bell’s. His bill, HB 1617, was incorporated into HB 1928.