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Long IslandCrime

Expanded DNA database could aid cold cases

Ronald Diggs was indicted on a rape charge,

Ronald Diggs was indicted on a rape charge, found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Prosecutors say the case is a powerful example of how DNA evidence taken from convicted criminals can be used to link them to unsolved cases. Photo Credit: Handout

For three years, police tried to identify the man who broke into a Jericho hotel room and raped a 22-year-old woman at gunpoint. All they had to go on was the victim's sketchy description of her attacker, who was masked, prosecutors said.

A break finally came in 2006 when Ronald Diggs, of Huntington Station, pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and was required to provide a DNA sample. Police ran the sample through their database of unsolved cases and immediately got a hit showing it matched genetic material recovered from the victim's 2003 rape kit.

Diggs was indicted on a rape charge, found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Prosecutors say the case is a powerful example of how DNA evidence taken from convicted criminals can be used to link them to unsolved cases. Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law a bill expanding the state's DNA database by requiring anyone convicted of a felony or penal law misdemeanor to provide a genetic sample. The one exception is possession of a small amount of marijuana.

It's a move police and prosecutors hope will lead to arrests in old cases and exonerations where there were wrongful convictions. Victims' advocates also applauded the legislation, which passed over the objection of some critics who contend DNA evidence can be misused.

"We believe this will have a great impact," said Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who lobbied for the bill. "DNA is the fingerprint of the 21st century, and until now law enforcement has not used it to its full potential."

In addition to those who commit misdemeanors, the law, which takes effect Oct. 1, will now cover those who are convicted of driving while intoxicated, tax crimes, animal cruelty and many other felonies, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said.

"It's a vast expansion," he said. "This is going to be a great help to law enforcement."

People who commit minor crimes often go on to commit major ones, and the larger database may allow police to solve cold cases, Spota said.

 

Created in the 1990s

The state's DNA database, which contains 456,387 total profiles, was created in the mid-1990s and required genetic material to be collected from anyone convicted of a felony, or one of 18 specified misdemeanors -- about 48 percent of all offenders. Since its creation, DNA evidence has helped secure 2,900 convictions statewide and helped clear 27 wrongfully convicted people, Cuomo's office said.

The last significant expansion of the database, in 2006, resulted in a spike in the number of matches between offenders and crime scenes, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. In 2006, there were 603 hits to the databank. In 2007, the number of hits more than doubled to 1,308, and in 2008, it nearly tripled to 1,674 hits, said Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the division.

Officials hope this expansion, which will allow the database to grow at a faster rate, has a similar effect.

Some opponents of the database expansion say it feeds a growing misconception that DNA is an infallible science.

Robert Perry, legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the bill, said like all evidence, the collection and analysis of DNA is subject to human error and willful manipulation. Every new person in the database, especially those who committed relatively minor crimes and are unlikely to reoffend, becomes more likely to be wrongly targeted, he said.

He said the databank will also make police more dependent on DNA evidence, even though there are sometimes innocent reasons why a person's DNA can wind up at a crime scene. He said when there is a DNA hit, police often focus only on that, ignoring other evidence in the case.

Joseph Lo Piccolo, president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association, said eventually, the DNA database could be put to other uses that could erode defendants' privacy rights.

"We want the innocent exonerated, but not at the cost of every other individuals' rights," he said.

Right now, Lo Piccolo said, potential employers don't have access to the database. But who's to say they won't in the future? "You can't unring the bell," he said.

 

Safeguards sought

Other opponents of the bill said that, contrary to its claims, it will not prevent wrongful convictions. They said the bill should have included other safeguards for defendants, such as requiring police to videotape interrogations and mandating that no one in the room during a police lineup knows which person is the chief suspect.

"This bill didn't get the job done on wrongful convictions that's so badly needed in New York and Long Island," said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, which assists prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.

Proponents of the bill say that it will indeed help defendants protect themselves.

The new law also gives defense lawyers easier access to evidence, allowing them to petition judges to order prosecutors to turn over all evidence -- not just DNA -- in their case. Previously, they were only required to hand over evidence that suggested the defendant might be not guilty. It also allows defense lawyers to petition judges to order evidence in the case be tested against the DNA database.

"DNA has always been great for convicting the guilty, but if innocent people don't have access to it too, then what good is it?" asked Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), sponsor of the legislation. "This bill levels the playing field, and allows equal access for everyone."

He said about $7 million has been set aside to offset the cost of the bill to law enforcement. The test, as simple as swabbing a cheek, will cost about $30 per person, according to prosecutors.

Many victims' advocates are also pleased with the legislation, saying they hope it will lead to more solid convictions.

"This will help convict criminals, and it will protect the innocent, and that's a good thing for both," said Denna Cohen, president of the Long Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

THE DNA DATABASE

As of Feb. 29, the state DNA databank contained:

390,097 profiles taken from criminal offenders

39,153 genetic samples removed from crime scenes

456,387 total profiles that include the samples from offenders and crime scenes and samples from missing persons or the relatives of missing persons, and from offenders who voluntarily provide a sample in connection with a plea bargain, participation in a Department of Correctional Services temporary release program, or release on parole or probation.

Source: New York Department of Criminal Justice Services

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