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DNA bill draws rights groups, moms

A state House judiciary committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would direct that DNA samples be collected from suspects arrested for serious crimes, rather than waiting for a conviction.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Mothers who believe expanded DNA collection would have brought swifter justice for their slain daughters faced off Tuesday against rights groups who warned against expanding databases of genetic markers.

A state House judiciary committee then advanced a bill that would direct that DNA samples be collected from suspects arrested for serious crimes, rather than waiting for a conviction. The data would be destroyed if charges are dismissed or a suspect was never charged.

“This is a positive step forward to solve cold cases and exonerate the innocent, but we still have more legislative hurdles to clear," North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement Tuesday morning. "Before it adjourns, the legislature should allow law enforcement to collect DNA from arrestees.”

Cooper has long pushed for and succeeded in expanding the SBI crime lab's DNA testing capabilities and has previously called the proposed legislation "critical to public safety."

Lawmakers are grappling with how to balance the promise of DNA tools. They are trying to tailor the good of preventing some crimes by identifying and locking up repeat offenders sooner against fears of misusing an individual's most intimate biological identifiers.

"We're all concerned about this slippery slope that we're getting ready to get on," said Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham.

The federal government and nearly half the country's states have laws allowing collection of DNA samples without waiting for proof of a suspect's guilt.

They include Alaska and Tennessee, which passed laws after suspects in high-profile slayings were identified with the help of DNA databases. The mothers of both victims urged North Carolina lawmakers to pass similar legislation.

"Fewer cases will go cold," said Karen Foster, who now lives near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It will prevent so many crimes and it keeps the innocent out of jail" when DNA shows a suspect can't be the perpetrator.

Her daughter, 18-year-old Bonnie Craig, was raped and killed in 1994 after leaving the family's Anchorage home to attend classes at the University of Alaska.

Kenneth Dion was charged with the crime in 2007 and Foster said his trial is pending later this year. Dion had been serving a prison term in New Hampshire for a string of armed robberies. New Hampshire collects DNA samples from convicted criminals, but a backlog of samples meant Dion's DNA was not taken until two years after his 2003 conviction.

New Hampshire collects DNA only from those convicted of certain violent crimes. The state's legislature is considering expanding DNA testing to all convicted felons.

Joan Berry's daughter, college student Johnia Berry of Bristol, Tenn., was stabbed to death in 2004 in Knoxville, where she planned to attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee. The 21-year-old was attacked in bed by a burglar.

Berry's parents spent 2 1/2 years publicizing their daughter's unsolved case. A suspect who had voluntarily submitted his DNA after being charged with violating his probation was charged with Berry's slaying. The man apparently hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial.

"It's my prayer no family will have to go through what we did," Berry said.

But spokesmen for the American Civil Liberties Union and the gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina warned that expanding DNA collection poses problems.

The state has too often seen data lost or stolen to believe that it couldn't happen to DNA data, said Grass Roots North Carolina spokesman John Landreth.

"When you have someone's DNA sample, that is valuable," he said. Someone may "pay money for that."

While lawmakers have improved the bill's protections, the ACLU believes DNA data is different from photos and fingerprints of suspects and violates the U.S. Constitution's ban against unreasonable government searches and seizures, policy director Sarah Parker said.

"It's an end-run around the Fourth Amendment," Parker said.