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Walker supports taking DNA at arrest

Gov. Scott Walker hopes to revive a plan introduced twice by Sen. Sheila Hardorf, R-River Falls, to require police to collect DNA samples from suspects when they are arrested in some felony and serious sex cases.

Saying this is an attempt to ensure that the most violent offenders are held accountable, Walker announced last week that he is asking Attorney General J.B. Hollen to submit a plan to collect DNA at the time of arrest.

The intent is to include the plan in the next state budget.

Walker offered few details and didn't say which specific crimes would trigger DNA collection.

Current state law requires that people convicted of felonies or specified misdemeanors or people found to be sexually violent must submit DNA samples for the Department of Justice's data bank.

In both 2009 and 2011, Harsdorf sponsored bills to collect DNA before a suspect is convicted.

The 2011 bill would have required law-enforcement agencies to take DNA samples from every adult arrested on a felony charge or for fourth-degree sexual assault, lewd and lascivious behavior, or exposing genitals to a child.

DNA would also be collected from juveniles taken into custody for certain sexual-assault offenses.

The law-enforcement agency would submit the specimens to state crime labs for analysis and inclusion in the DNA data bank.

The bill stipulated that the crime labs must, at the person's request, expunge the information if the suspect was not charged with the crime within a year.

The 2009 and 2011 bills came under attack because of concerns for suspects' civil rights and because of the cost.

A fiscal estimate prepared by the state's Division of Executive Budget and Finance last year indicated the first-year DNA collection costs would be over $4 million and the cost in the second and subsequent years would be $2.6 million annually.

Now, said Harsdorf, it's necessary to put together a process that will work for both law enforcement and crime victims.

"I'm really pleased that the attorney general is part of it," she said, predicting that Van Hollen's department can develop a system that will work and that is affordable.

"DNA is the modern-day fingerprint. This is a common-sense tool that will give Wisconsin the ability to cross check information, identify suspects and get violent offenders off the streets," Walker said last week. "This life-saving policy will also bring justice to families that have been victimized."

He thanked Van Hollen and Harsdorf for collaborating on "this important, public safety initiative."

Harsdorf added, "There's no doubt in my mind it's the right thing to do. It saves lives."

She called DNA "the new identifier of the 21st Century."

Harsdorf said her efforts in this area were inspired by the determination of Jayann Sepich, a New Mexican woman whose daughter was raped and murdered Aug. 30, 2003.

The young woman's killer was not found until December 2006 when Gabrial Avila gave a DNA sample as a result of a burglary conviction.

Avila had been arrested for aggravated burglary three months after Katie's death, but no DNA sample was taken then.

Harsdorf pointed out two significant elements of that case: The murderer could have been identified years earlier, protecting other potential victims, if his DNA had been collected when he was first arrested; and until the DNA sample was taken, there was nothing to connect a burglar to the rape and murder.

Today half the states and the federal government require a DNA sample upon felony arrest.

Collecting it at the time of arrest will prevent murders and can also exonerate the innocent, said Harsdorf.

Walker's press release referred to a National Institute of Justice report that indicates 200 individuals who were wrongly convicted have been freed due to DNA collection.

"In and of itself, DNA does not solve the case," added Harsdorf. "It's a piece (of evidence)."

The process of collecting and the cost are issues that need to be addressed, admitted Harsdorf.

"There's a cost, but there's also a savings, and that's harder to calculate," she said, adding that finding out early that an accused is not guilty of a particular crime saves on investigative costs.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.