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In 2008, a technician was found to be falsifying data at the State Police Forensic Investigation Center in Albany. He escaped detection for 15 years. Photo: Mike Melita, Innovation Trail
In 2008, a technician was found to be falsifying data at the State Police Forensic Investigation Center in Albany. He escaped detection for 15 years. Photo: Mike Melita, Innovation Trail

Can New York labs handle more DNA?

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There's a new effort in Albany to pass a bill that would bring about a major expansion to the New York's DNA databank.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that having more DNA can help solve more crimes, but not everyone agrees that this bill does enough to ensure justice. WMHT's Marie Cusick reports for the Innovation Trail.

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The power of DNA evidence in solving crimes is undeniable.

“For more than 10 years, my daughter lived with the fear that this predator would return to kill her, because she was very much aware that he was still roaming the streets.”

That’s Ann, who didn’t give her last name. She traveled from Queens to the Capitol in Albany to speak on behalf of crime victims, and support a new bill to expand the state’s DNA databank.
The man who raped her daughter was only caught after he was convicted of a theft years later. “And the only reason that happened was because of the new laws at the time, allowing him to even be DNA-tested for a petty larceny.”

 This new bill would go even further. It requires people convicted of all felonies, and all penal law misdemeanors to hand over their DNA to the databank. The bill passed the state Senate in January, and Governor Cuomo is now pushing the Assembly to do the same.

“Why wouldn’t you want to solve more crimes?”

But the controversy surrounding DNA isn’t about solving more crimes; it’s about whether New York’s system is set up to be fair. The main complaint from defense attorneys is that the bill doesn't do enough to protect people who are wrongfully accused. But criticism doesn’t stop there, even among supporters of the legislation there are worries about oversight.

Bill Fitzpatrick is the District Attorney for Onondaga County, and he also serves on the Commission on Forensic Science, the body that oversees the state’s 22 DNA labs.
“I completely agree with Governor Cuomo that this should be a stand-alone bill. This is good public policy.”

But Fitzpatrick doesn’t necessarily agree with is his own role on that commission, he argues some of its members like him, aren’t truly qualified to make decisions about whether a DNA lab does a good job or not. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t know how a gas chromatograph works. I don’t know how DNA analysis actually works in terms of the science behind it. And yet here I am as one of a 14 member commission being asked to determine if a lab has met certain standards and should be allowed to continue to operate.”

The State Inspector General’s office has also criticized the commission. They issued a harshly-worded report late last year, citing the commission for a quote “almost complete abdication of its responsibility” when major problems surfaced at the Nassau County Crime Lab.  

Fitzpatrick thinks that the makeup of the commission needs to change. Its 14 members include both district attorneys and defense lawyers, who Fitzpatrick says have an inherent conflict of interest. “Think about it. You might have to vote on accrediting a New York City crime laboratory on Tuesday and then next Tuesday you’re in court attacking the evidence that is being presented against your client.”

Another oversight issue relates to the state’s so-called “rogue” DNA databanks- places which store DNA from people who may never have been convicted of a crime, but may have turned over a saliva sample to help police eliminate potential suspects. “There’s some problems inherent with that and I think one of the things the State DA’s Association is doing right this very moment is looking at best practices with how to deal with that and how to regulate that.” None of these DNA lab oversight measures is included in the current bill “which has drawn broad support from law enforcement and victim’s advocacy groups.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office says that he and his colleagues are working on inserting language in the bill to allow greater protections for the wrongfully accused.

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