Neuman was raped when she was 18 years old, and it took police nearly 20 years to identify her attacker, though he'd been arrested at least six times before her attack and six times afterward. Alphonso Hill pleaded guilty in 2002 to raping Neuman and was sent to prison for 15 years. A DNA sample taken in prison led to charges in six other rapes, and police say Alphonso is a suspect in at least 20 additional rapes in the Baltimore, Maryland, area.
Neuman maintains he could have been stopped far earlier, if DNA had been collected sooner.
She went public with her story and began lobbying for a law that would require police to take DNA samples from everyone arrested for a violent crime. And in January, Maryland legislators signed a bill into law that expands its DNA database by collecting samples upon arrest for certain felonies.
To supporters, building a DNA database with samples from the unconvicted is no different than collecting fingerprints, but critics say it's a violation of civil rights and that it opens the door for a person's genetic "fingerprint" to get into the wrong hands.
Not so, says Dr. Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford (Virginia) University, who has coauthored several publications relating to the examination of national and international DNA databases. He says the DNA collected for identification is classified as junk DNA, and does not contain genetic data. In fact, forensic technicians only examine 13 to 15 loci out of 3 million markers when using DNA for identification purposes. If someone studies the resulting profile, they cannot learn whether an individual has diabetes or is susceptible to certain types of cancers or diseases, Burke states.
That being said, he warns rules and regulations must be enacted to ensure DNA data is not misused in any way. "You assume the people you hire are professional and will not abuse their authority," he says. "But there needs to be specific guidelines and proper supervision to prevent misuse."
Associate Attorney General Kevin O'Connor tried to quell worries over the misuse of DNA in a recent press release, where he stated, "Congress has passed a provision that says anybody who abuses this information, or uses it for non-law enforcement purposes, such as to look at someone's family history of diabetes or whatever the disease may be … will be prosecuted."
But other precautions must be in place in addition to tough laws, states Sepich. Fortunately, much is already being done to protect this information. Every DNA profile is converted into a data string, so that anyone hacking into the system receives a series of numbers and little more. The information housed here also does not have a name or serial number attached to it, just a code. This code corresponds to identifying information housed in a separate database, which is not linked to the DNA database in any way. "If someone got into one database without accessing the other, they wouldn't even know whose profile it was," Jayann stresses. "There's been a tremendous amount of thought put into guarding these databases."Tracking DNA expungement
Civil libertarians warn that DNA samples taken from individuals arrested for certain crimes will likely remain in the system, even if the suspect is exonerated. However, federal law requires states mandating the collection of arrestee DNA to include a provision for expungement if the arrestee is found not guilty or never prosecuted.
How this is done varies from state to state. Some states have automatic expungement where a state department follows each and every case, then either expunges or retains the DNA. New Mexico officials decided a more cost-effective approach was to have arrestees file for expungement. In this state, arrestees simply write a letter asking the state to expunge their DNA, and it's done. "This saves a tremendous amount of money," Jayann says. "Automatic expungement would have cost the state approximately $100 a sample."
But Michael Smith, a professor from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is not convinced. "How do we know if they have destroyed the sample?" he asks in an interview with CourtTV. "It's a problem that's not really resolved by saying we have a law against it."