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Legislation Seeks to End Statute of Limitations when DNA Evidence Available

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; April 4, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Under legislation already approved by the Tennessee Senate and scheduled for a floor vote in the House of Representatives, prosecutors will be able to continue their practice of proceeding with criminal charges against perpetrators even when they can’t be captured or even identified by name — as long as the individual’s unique DNA profile is known.

At a news conference attended by leading prosecutors and the Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mark Green, M.D., (R-Clarksville) and Rep. Ryan Haynes (R-14th Dist.), said the measure lets prosecutors “stop the clock” on the statute of limitations, the time limit by which criminal actions must be commenced.

The measure received unanimous approval by the Senate on Monday, April 1, and is now scheduled for a vote next week in the House of Representatives.

“This bill sends lawbreakers a clear message that Tennessee will use every available technology to track you down and bring you to justice — no matter how long it takes,” said Dr. Green, an emergency room physician who routinely gathers DNA evidence. “It helps keep Tennessee’s laws up to date with advances in medicine and science.”

“This legislation is a major step forward in making sure those people who commit the most egregious of crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” stated Rep. Haynes. “I am proud of this legislation and thank every single person and organization involved in this project for working towards a safer Tennessee.”

The legislation codifies the practice used by 20th District Attorney General Torry Johnson in the case of Robert Jason Burdick, the so-called “Wooded Rapist,” whose crimes spanned more than a decade. His case was kept alive because a piece of skin he left at the scene of one of his earliest crimes provided law enforcement DNA evidence linking him to the crime.

“Even though the defendant in this case wasn’t taken into custody until several years after the crime, we were able to preserve the case through the DNA that was collected” at the time, noted Johnson in a statement. “The use of DNA as a way of identifying defendants and preventing the statute of limitations from running will help bring people to justice.”

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed that prosecutors can properly commence a criminal action, effectively tolling the Statute of Limitations, in cases where the suspect’s unique DNA profile is known.

Both Dr. Green and Rep. Haynes praised the work of Johnson and Assistant District Roger Moore, who prosecuted the case.

“The ‘Wooded Rapist’ case shows the real potential of DNA evidence,” said Dr. Green. “The painstaking work of police and medical personnel to retrieve and preserve the DNA samples were rewarded when, years later, the perpetrator was finally identified — but it took the persistence and creativity of skilled prosecutors to bring him to justice. We want all Tennessee prosecutors to have these tools at their disposal.”

“Receiving justice for victims should not have a deadline,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn, “especially when there’s DNA evidence available that could lead to solving a crime.”

“Laws need to be updated to keep up with technology and this legislation does just that,” Gwyn added. “There’s no reason a violent crime should go unsolved when you have DNA that could identify the perpetrator in the future.”

Senate sponsors of the bill, in addition to Green are: Senators Ketron, Finney, Bowling, Burks, Campfield, Haile, McNally, Norris, Stevens, and Tracy. House sponsors of the bill, in addition to Haynes are: Representatives Lamberth, Rogers, Weaver, Shipley, Hardaway, Rich, Watson, Parkinson, Faison, Lundberg, Travis, Fitzhugh, Camper, White M, Shepard, Eldridge and Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson.

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Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

No DNA Collected from DUI Suspects Under ‘No Refusal’ Law: State

The blood samples collected from suspected drunk drivers under a new “No Refusal” law are not added to a national DNA database used by prosecutors, according to Tennessee state public safety officials.

“Blood samples obtained by a search warrant from a suspected DUI offender are tested for blood alcohol content only,” Department of Safety Spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said via email. “Those blood samples are not used for any other purpose and are NOT placed in a DNA database.”

“There’s no DNA ever run on those,” said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “I can assure you that’s not the case.”

The state this summer began enforcing a new law that allows cops to seek a warrant to compel people accused of driving under the influence to involuntarily give up a blood sample if they refuse a Breathalyzer or blood test.

State troopers forced eight people to submit to blood tests over the Fourth of July holiday weekend during the first test of the new law, DPS said.

A judge on-site issued warrants requiring the sobriety tests of the drivers, who had initially refused. Another 40 people stopped in Anderson, Bradley, Davidson, Maury and Warren counties submitted to the tests without a warrant. The results of those tests are not yet available.

State officials say the blood collected will not be used to bolster the national Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, a database to which Tennessee adds tens of thousands of DNA profiles each year in an attempt to help prosecutors levy charges against crime suspects.

Not least among the reasons is it would be unlawful to do so.

Officials can only collect and keep DNA information from convicted felons and people accused of committing or being a party to a “violent felony,” such as aggravated assault and carjacking. This year, lawmakers added that people charged with five additional crimes would also have to give up DNA samples, including various homicide and manslaughter charges.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in 2011 wanted to expand that list to all felonies, like large-scale theft and drug crimes and DUIs, but the measure went nowhere.

The state collected 14,586 DNA samples from arrestees and 13,778 samples from convicts in the year ended June 2011, according to the TBI. The TBI handles DNA evidence for the major crimes that make it into CODIS and is in charge of examining blood work to measure alcohol or toxicity of DUI suspects.

The statements from TBI and Safety spokespersons conflicted with that of Safety Department Commissioner Bill Gibbons. The TBI is independent of his department.

Gibbons, a former Memphis district attorney, told TNReport on July 17 that the state does retain a database of DNA records for people accused of driving under the influence. “The state does have DNA records on many individuals, and you can run those results, and it really helps in terms of investigating a particular case, and I again, I think it’s to the advantage of everybody,” Gibbons said. And when asked specifically if the state retained a database of DNA records of people accused of DUIs, he said, “Yes, but how long it’s retained, I don’t know the answer to that. But yes, there is a database, so to speak, of that.”

Howver, that’s not accurate, Donnals said later. “I think Commissioner Gibbons misunderstood your question, and I wanted to make sure you had the correct information,” she said via email later the day of the interview.

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Liberty and Justice News NewsTracker

Hostility to Liberty Part of Government’s DNA

Tennessee blogger and tea party activist Ken Marrero has an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that criticizes Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s proposal to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony.

Present law in Tennessee requires that police obtain samples only from suspects arrested under suspicion of committing a violent felony, according to the General Assembly’s legislative summary of Ramsey’s bill, SB257.

Ramsey’s suggested changes would require a biological sample be taken in all felony arrests as “a condition of the person’s release on bond or recognizance.”

Writes Marrero:

If charges are dropped or the accused is not convicted, the sample is destroyed. Detractors see this as an acknowledgment of the bill’s weakness. If the criteria for sample retention is a conviction, why not delay collection until then?

Marrero, who blogs at Blue Collar Muse, worries that Ramsey’s bill represents yet another step away from the bedrock constitutional principle in this country that one is innocent until proven guilty. Furthermore, writes Marrero, does anyone really believe the government can be trusted to actually get rid of all record of the samples in the event that an arrest proves wrongful? Also, what happens to the samples in the interim?

Technical innovation is welcomed by the law abiding. But I cannot sanction violating one law while enforcing another. The pursuit of justice must not itself create injustices and securing the rights of the people must remain the highest priority of government.

In a rapidly changing technical environment and with the ability of multiple jurisdictions to pass laws concerning the collection and use of DNA, extreme vigilance must be maintained to ensure the rights and liberties of Americans are not trampled in the process.

SB257 hasn’t yet received a hearing. Its companion bill in the House of Representatives is sponsored by Bristol Republican John Lunberg.