State News

Rape victim speaks out in support of DNA arrest bill

Posted June 28, 2010 3:42 p.m. EDT
Updated June 28, 2010 6:08 p.m. EDT

— Nearly five years ago, Meghan Oberzan was on a routine morning jog when someone grabbed her along Charlotte's East Boulevard and raped her.

"The thing I remember the most about it was my scream," Oberzan, 30, said Monday. "It was my last chance for survival, I thought. I still think about it today."

WRAL News usually does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Oberzan has gone public with her story in an effort to raise support of a bill in the General Assembly that would require anyone arrested on a felony charge give a DNA sample.

A sample recovered in her case was linked to two other rapes in the Charlotte area, but investigators could never identify a suspect, because he was not listed in state and national DNA databases.

It was July 2007 when investigators finally made an arrest. To her surprise, Oberzan had learned her attacker had been in police custody on other charges shortly before and after her attack and the rapes of two other women.

"Had this (bill) been passed prior to my rape, in all likelihood, my rapist would have been in jail Sept. 25, 2005, and I would never have met him," Oberzan said.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and others in law enforcement say House Bill 1403 would help solve cases like Oberzan's more quickly. 

But lawmakers still haven't taken up the matter, and the legislative session is nearing an end.

"The General Assembly must act now," Cooper said at a news conference to rally them to act on the bill. "More people like Meghan will suffer from violent crime if the Legislature leaves without passing this law."

Under the proposed legislation, North Carolina would join 23 other states that would allow officers to use a cheek swab to take a DNA samples from anyone arrested on a felony charge.

The DNA would be used only for identification purposes, and if a person is found not guilty of the crime or the charge is dismissed, the sample would be deleted from the databases.

It would also help clear innocent people of crimes, said Jim Woodall, the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, citing three 1995 rape cases in which women bound and gagged in Duke Forest.

In those cases, an innocent man matching the suspect description who was in the area at the time of the crimes was held for two weeks before investigators cleared him as a suspect.

The attacker was identified several years later after he had already been arrested on a 1997 stabbing charge and attacks on two real estate agents in 1998 and 1999.

“I think this (DNA arrest bill) cuts both ways. It certainly benefits the innocent. It's a very strong tool for prosecutors and law enforcement when we're going after the guilty," said Woodall, who serves as district attorney in Chatham and Orange counties. "This is the next appropriate step to take in this state."

North Carolina already has a law that requires convicted felons to submit DNA samples. Since it went into effect in 2003, the state's DNA database has grown from 18,000 samples to more than 190,000, Cooper said, and has solved more than 1,400 crimes.

In the first year the new law would be in place, Cooper has said, the state DNA database could be expanded by a projected 45,000 samples and solve an estimated 100 cases.

The bill, however, faces challenges.

Opponents are concerned about how DNA would be used and about the constitutionality of collecting it. They cite the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable government searches and seizures.

But Cooper said courts across the country have upheld the law as constitutional and that DNA would be an extension of the booking process.

Another concern is funding.

Cooper said the bill requires $1.4 million in funding, but regardless of where it comes from, it needs to be passed.

Gov. Bev Perdue asked for $700,000 in the state budget, in part, to train local law enforcement on how to collect DNA properly.

"We will need some budget help to get this done," Cooper said. "But it is a small price to pay to protect the public from violent crime, and we know that we can help protect the public from violent crime by doing this.”

The law would be self-sustaining through a proposed $3 court fee and eligibility for $1 million in federal funding that would cover the cost of approximately nine new employees at the State Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab, as well as swab kits and training for local law enforcement, the Attorney General's Office said.