The proposed expansion of the DNA database is a good idea. But if we are set to expand the database to include the DNA of every person convicted of a crime in New York, we must do so with the intention of furthering the cause of justice while balancing the privacy rights of every New Yorker. It will take an effort from both sides of the courtroom in order to achieve the full potential of an all-crimes DNA database.
As Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney, a proponent of the expansion, often cites, DNA samples from those convicted of petty larceny in just the past five and a half years have linked offenders to 965 other crimes. That is just one example of the successes of the database when used by law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes. However, this leaves unanswered the challenge of what is being done to help exonerate the innocent.
Case in point
Until a few days ago, I represented a man, let’s call him “Moe,” in Albany County. On parole for a prior drug conviction, Moe was walking home one night from work with a friend when he was stopped by a number of police officers. An informant, looking to curry favor, told the police that Moe had drugs and a gun on him. He had neither, but his friend, standing nearby, had both. Moe claimed innocence but was thrown in jail for gun possession. He was then indicted and also charged with violating parole. Despite already having his DNA in the state database, the district attorney did not check it against the sample found on the gun for months.
Finally, after a number of defense requests to compare the DNA on the gun to Moe’s stored sample, the Albany County District Attorney’s Office instead took a new sample of DNA from him and tested it against the DNA found on the weapon. As he had said from the start, Moe was innocent. His co-defendant’s DNA — not his — was on the gun.
Because the district attorney had neglected to request a simple DNA comparison, an innocent man spent more than eight months in jail before he was exonerated. So while we should be moving toward DNA collection on every conviction, we must also take care to create a system that does more than simply warehouse the information for possible future use at the sole discretion of prosecutors.
Right now, the decision to test for DNA is controlled by the district attorney. Defense attorneys have no means to compel testing. That needs to change.
We should listen to The Innocence Project, based in New York City, an organization that has taken the lead in using DNA to exonerate scores of our citizens who have been wrongly convicted. New York state is third in the nation, with 24, for wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA.
DNA is not “just like a fingerprint.” To make that comparison is to see the world only in two dimensions. DNA is more like a medical report. It is a complex storehouse of information that communicates much more than a person’s identity to the government. It contains a person’s entire genetic blueprint and, with every passing day, scientific advances are able to unlock more and more information contained within that double helix.
Need for caution
Thus, while it must be done, we must be cautious if we allow the state of New York to expand the DNA database. Being mindful of the benefits and aware of the dangers to our personal privacy, its proper usage can be another step toward justice for all.
Lee Kindlon is an attorney in Albany who is running for Albany County district attorney. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.