DNA saves

More states are finding collecting DNA upon arrest saves lives, money and time


     "Katie's favorite word was ‘zest.' She loved the sound of it, loved what it meant. And Katie lived her life with zest. She used to say, ‘Wake up every day expecting something wonderful to happen.' She looked forward to each new day," her parents Dave and Jayann Sepich write at www.dnasaves.org, the site of a non-profit association they formed to help educate policy makers and the public about the value of forensic DNA.

     Katie's life was cut short in 2003 when the 22-year-old graduate student at New Mexico State University was brutally raped, strangled to death, set on fire and abandoned at a dumpsite near her home. Although no strong suspects emerged, skin and blood under her fingernails produced a full DNA profile, which was uploaded to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

     "When Katie was raped and murdered, I thought the guy who did this to her was obviously such a horrible person that he would get arrested for something else, they would take his DNA and we'd have him," says Jayann.

     She soon learned it was illegal in New Mexico to collect DNA upon arrest and that DNA samples were only uploaded to state and federal databases upon felony conviction.

     "I was stunned," she recalls. "I just assumed when someone was arrested they took their fingerprints, their mugshot and their DNA."

     Three long years later the Sepichs received some closure in their personal tragedy when the New Mexico DNA database matched the unknown DNA profile collected at the scene of their daughter's murder to Gabriel Avila, who by then had been convicted for several other crimes. But if New Mexico had required a DNA sample for Avila's felony arrest in November of 2003, Jayann says investigators might have solved Katie's murder sooner and caught this murderer before he roamed free for three more years.

     The Sepichs championed the cause of collecting DNA upon arrest in New Mexico, and in January 2006, the New Mexico state legislature passed "Katie's Law." This legislation requires law enforcement to collect DNA for most felony arrests and upload it to the state DNA databank. The state of New Mexico became the sixth state to enact such legislation, and to date there are 15 states with similar laws.

Arrestee legislation makes sense

     Arrestee DNA legislation just make sense, stresses Jayann. Research shows that often perpetrators of stranger murders are or will become serial killers. A recent city of Chicago study seems to support this. The Chicago examination followed the criminal histories of eight convicted felons and found that had officials collected DNA upon their first felony arrests, they would have prevented 60 violent crimes, including 30 rapes and 22 murders.

     The criminal history of Chester Dewayne Turner further bolsters the case for arrestee DNA. Police arrested Turner for assault with a firearm on January 26, 1987, but released him due to lack of evidence. Law enforcement arrested Turner 21 more times before he received a conviction that resulted in DNA being taken and uploaded into the state of California DNA databank, where his profile matched DNA evidence found on 12 rape and murder victims. Turner committed his first murder in March 1987, less than two months after his first arrest, so had his DNA been collected it is possible a11 of his victims would still be alive, Jayann reports.

     She contends the new law is working as intended in New Mexico, where there have been 49 matches since January 1, 2007. "It's really incredible the way it works," she says. "Forensic DNA doesn't just work in theory, it works in practice."

Civil rights violation?

     Laura Neuman's story bears striking resemblance to that of Katie Sepich in that DNA is what finally landed her attacker in prison.

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