ALBANY -- New York is again debating expanding its DNA database, this time to include samples from every person convicted of a crime. The debate pits what backers say is solid science and more solved cases against critics who raise the possibility of tainted evidence and a secret stash of information that favors prosecutors.
The scientist running New York's DNA crime laboratory said he cannot recall a single instance in 16 years when the lab produced bad genetic information that linked an innocent person to a crime. Instead, the work has helped police identify suspects in 12,000 cases, many of them previously unsolved, and exonerate 27 people wrongfully convicted.
"Every step in the process is associated with scientific controls to assure the accuracy of the results," said Barry Duceman, a former Yale genetics researcher who was hired two decades ago to launch the state program. The lab repeatedly meets accreditation standards that require strict quality controls, he said.
Critics point to the potential for contaminated crime scene evidence and some processing errors in other states. They say the databank should at least be open to defense lawyers and at best be open to individuals who want to know if their DNA profiles are kept by police.
"The problem, in my judgment, is that the library is secret," said Edward Blake, a genetic researcher who has produced DNA evidence that overturned several convictions. "That secrecy of the contents of that library is contrary to the principles of a democratic society."
The Republican-controlled State Senate recently approved and Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is advocating the so-called clean bill to expand collections to lesser crimes, citing experience that shows many small-timers move on to robberies, rapes and murders that could be solved or prevented.
Since the addition of petty larceny to the databank more than five years ago, DNA collected from this minor crime produced leads in cases involving nearly 1,000 other crimes, including 53 murders.
Pending legislation repeatedly passed by the Democrat-run Assembly would expand DNA collection while increasing database access. That bill also includes mandates to prevent coerced confessions and witness errors by requiring videotaped police interrogations and a system of looking at photo arrays where neither the officer nor the witness knows if the suspect is included, a technique known as double-blind.
Last year, both bills died with no negotiated compromise.
Cuomo has said he will consider changes to the clean bill, but only if they are strictly DNA-related, telling supportive prosecutors and police he is optimistic about getting the measure passed this year. He said he doesn't want the bill freighted with the other criminal justice issues.
"They're making a legitimate discussion for how we conduct investigations, how we do confessions, how we do lineups. There are a lot of issues that we can discuss," he said. "This is about DNA."