WASHINGTON – In 2001, then King County Sheriff Dave Reichert relied on a DNA match to solve the case of Washington state’s Green River Killer, who murdered 49 women and still ranks as the nation’s most prolific serial killer.
Now a Republican congressman, Reichert wants Congress to expand the use of DNA testing by getting more states to collect DNA samples, just as they do fingerprints, when suspected felons are arrested for state crimes.
Such testing is already allowed for anyone arrested by a U.S. law enforcement agency for a federal crime.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s an invasion of privacy and that DNA testing should be reserved only for convicted felons. They note that hundreds of thousands of people are arrested each year but that many of them are never charged or convicted.
To promote his effort on Capitol Hill, Reichert has teamed up with Jayann and David Sepich of Carlsbad, N.M., whose 22-year-old daughter Katie, a graduate student at New Mexico State University, was raped, strangled, set on fire and abandoned at a dump site in August 2003.
Jayann Sepich said a national DNA sample law could save hundreds of lives, and she wants to help others avoid her trauma. She has become an expert, testifying at statehouses across the country, and works full time on the issue.
“I know that there are other mothers out there that won’t go through what I’ve been through,” she said. “I know that sounds like a cliche, but I can’t tell you how important it is. I’ve seen the pain it’s brought, not just to me personally, but Katie’s daddy, her brother, her sister, her cousins, her grandparents, her friends, my friends. I’ve seen what it does.”
Three months after Katie was killed, Gabriel Avilla was arrested for aggravated burglary. No DNA sample was collected from him. He was not linked to the Sepich slaying until he was apprehended, and later convicted, for another burglary offense in December 2006.
Reichert and the Sepiches say the case could have been solved three years earlier if a DNA sample had been taken at the time of the first arrest.
A patchwork of laws is now in place for DNA testing.
Under a law passed by Congress in 2006, DNA samples have been taken from those arrested for federal crimes since January 2009, with the information going to a national database. Federal crimes can include anything involving interstate travel, including heists and the transport of illegal contraband, and such things as tax evasion, immigration offenses and counterfeiting of money.
In addition, 24 states have passed laws covering state crimes. Each state has its own criminal code, so something that’s a felony in one state may not be in another. Washington collects samples from those convicted of certain crimes, but not from suspects.
Reichert, who sponsored his bill with California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, wants to spend roughly $30 million over five years to provide incentives for the remaining 26 states, including Washington, to pass similar laws. The bill is called the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, or Katie’s Law for short. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
Jayann Sepich said she’s not ready to give up on Washington state yet, even though the measure went nowhere in the Legislature this year.
“Unfortunately, it was more a money issue, I believe, in Washington state than a policy issue,” Sepich said. “But we’re not going to give up. We’re going to be back next year.”
If more states participated, more crimes would get solved earlier, Reichert said, adding: “Not only that, there would be some innocent people in prison released.”
And if Congress provided incentive money, Reichert said he suspects that most states would participate, given their money troubles. But none would be forced to do so.
“There are certain members of Congress in both houses that believe that states should maintain control, especially over local crime issues, unless they cross over into federal jurisdiction — and most of the time the crimes that we’re talking about don’t,” he said.
Reichert acknowledged one big sticking point: With Congress in a budget-cutting mode, “the big hurdle that we have to overcome is how we’re going to pay for this.”
On average, Sepich said, it costs $30 to collect one DNA sample, adding that “you don’t do this for free.”
But in the long run, she said, states would save money. In the case of her daughter’s murder, Sepich said, an extra $200,000 was spent investigating the case over the three years before the killer was found.
“So $200,000 could have been saved with a cheek swab,” she said.
Some of the state statutes have already been tested in the courts, including in California, where voters approved a law in 2004.
Lily Haskell became the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the ACLU, challenging the constitutionality of the California law. She was arrested in San Francisco in 2009 at a rally opposing the Iraq war, on suspicion of trying to help another protester who was being held by police, a felony in California. She was forced to provide a DNA sample, even though she was never charged. She complained that her genetic information is now “stored indefinitely in a government database.”
With other challenges underway, Sepich predicted that the issue won’t be resolved until it hits the U.S. Supreme Court. She said she believes it will be upheld.
“I wouldn’t be spending my life working so hard if it was just going to be struck down,” she said.
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6000