Database of DNA nears passage

The Baltimore Sun

Despite last-minute objections from Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, legislation to expand collection of DNA samples from suspects charged with violent crimes moved a step closer to final passage yesterday, as a House committee made only minor changes to the version of the bill that passed the Senate last week.

The Judiciary Committee voted 18-3 to approve the DNA bill, a top crime-fighting priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley, after defeating a series of amendments that would have delayed or limited the initiative. Proponents say an expanded DNA database would help solve crimes.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who had protested the bill loudly when a version of it first reached the House floor, appeared satisfied with the measure, as changes they had negotiated to increase protections for defendants remained largely untouched.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, was the only caucus member on the committee to vote against it, joining two Republican lawmakers.

The panel's chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., brushed aside concerns raised about the bill by Jessamy's office, which sent one of its veteran prosecutors to Annapolis yesterday to meet with committee members before they voted on the legislation.

"They had some questions, but we already talked about it," said Vallario, a Democrat from Prince George's County. He pointed out that the committee had held a hearing in February and a series of lengthy meetings since then with a wide array of stakeholders, including other state's attorneys. Now, with just a little more than week left in the 90-day legislative session, he said, "we couldn't delay it anymore."

Jessamy spokeswoman Margaret Burns said city prosecutors have a variety of problems with the DNA bill, which was substantially revised to accommodate concerns of black lawmakers, who said they feared the database would be used to target minorities.

One of Jessamy's biggest objections, her spokeswoman said, is one of the provisions added at the behest of the black caucus. That provision would expand defendants' rights after being convicted to request that their cases be reopened based on newly collected or analyzed DNA evidence.

"The court can ask law enforcement to conduct an investigation that can benefit the defendant," Burns said.

That would be a major shift from how cases now get handled when new evidence arises, she said.

A spokesman for O'Malley, who has had a long history of friction with Jessamy since he was mayor, dismissed her concerns about the DNA bill.

"The Baltimore County state's attorney supports it, the Prince George's state's attorney supports it, the attorney general supports it," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "The bill makes sense."

Jessamy's spokeswoman also said city prosecutors have had problems getting DNA evidence from crime scenes analyzed in a timely manner. The bill would expand the number of samples to be analyzed and would require they be checked against any DNA evidence taken from crime scenes - causing some to question whether the Maryland State Police laboratory can handle the workload.

When he introduced the bill, O'Malley said the Maryland State Police forensics laboratory had managed to eliminate a backlog of some 24,000 unprocessed DNA samples by increasing funding last year for the facility.

Committee members who said they were concerned about reports of a continuing backlog in handling of crime-scene DNA evidence proposed amendments that would have delayed the start of the new law, either until the backlog had been eliminated or until a new task force could study that and other issues related to expanded DNA collection.

"The longer we scratch this, the more I'm convinced it's not ready for prime time," said Del. Susan K. McComas, a Harford County Republican.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, called the bill a "giant leap into what I consider to be an invasion of personal liberties" and pushed for amendments to delay the law or limit DNA collection only to those convicted of crimes - a stance similar to the one advocated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat whom other committee members credited with helping to hammer out the compromise bill, urged lawmakers not to tinker with it now.

"By virtue of passing this legislation, we will be taking sex offenders off the street," he said. "The longer we delay it, the longer they stay out there."

A lobbyist for the state's sheriffs and police chiefs, who had supported the original bill, also raised concerns about provisions in the amended measure requiring local law enforcement agencies to collect and report information on how DNA samples and evidence are handled. Lawmakers added that provision to increase oversight of the database.

"We would be, in effect, a data collection agency in addition to a police agency," said Mike Canning, the sheriffs and chiefs' lobbyist.

Vallario, however, said those concerns also came too late.

The Senate bill, amended slightly to add a sunset provision to the DNA law providing for its expiration after five years, now goes to the House floor.

Vallario said he expected senators would accept the relatively minor change.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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