DNA collection bill spurs lengthy debate before Assembly committee

CARSON CITY — The forensic manager of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police crime lab testified Thursday that her office is more than a year behind in processing DNA from crime scenes.

Kimberly Murga, however, still  told the Assembly Judiciary Committee via teleconference that she supports Senate Bill 243, known as Brianna’s Law.

The bill, if approved, would require anyone arrested for a felony as of July 1, 2014, to give DNA through a cheek swab. The current law requires DNA samples to be given only when the person is convicted of a felony. The bill passed the Senate unanimously.

Murga said the Clark County lab is current in processing DNA taken from convicted felons, but far behind in processing crime scene DNA.

Earlier, the head of the Washoe County crime lab told the committee his lab is current on all DNA processing.

That wasn’t the case in 2008 when a 19-year-old coed named Brianna Denison was raped and murdered by James Biela, now on death row in Ely State Prison. 

Supporters of SB243 contend Denison’s murder might have been prevented if the bill had been in effect then because Biela had a previous felony arrest. Residents in Washoe County made contributions that year to help the county crime lab reduce its DNA backlog.

During a three-hour hearing on the bill where no action was taken, many legislators and witnesses questioned the constitutionality of collecting DNA from people who have not been convicted of crimes. They also were dismayed because the bill requires the person arrested — if he or she is not charged or later convicted of a lesser crime — to take steps on their own to have their DNA expunged from records.

“Shouldn’t it be automatic?” asked Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, of expunging DNA records for those without felony convictions.  

“Can’t we be more fair?” added Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas. “It is easy to get (DNA) in the system, but doubly hard to get out.”

In an interview, the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said the backlog in processing DNA from Clark County crime scenes should not be an excuse to kill the bill, which died during the 2011 Legislature. 

But by collecting DNA before conviction, ACLU lobbyist Vanessa Spinazola said the bill violates the “fundamental principle in America that people are innocent until proven guilty.”

Spinazola also noted that two people were convicted in Clark County when the wrong DNA was used at their trials.  Murga acknowledged that was true, but pointed out those convictions came in 2001 and 2002, before the DNA lab was certified. One of the men wrongly convicted, Dewayne Jackson, received a $1.5 million settlement.

Legislators also questioned Jayann Sepich, the mother of Katie Sepich, a 22-year-old New Mexico State University student who was raped and killed in 2003. DNA was taken from the crime scene and her daughter’s killer was caught three years later. New Mexico that year passed a law allowing DNA to be taken from those who’ve been arrested.

The issue of whether such laws violate the constitution has been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and a decision will be made this spring. Sepich has been an advocate in many states for laws like the one before the Judiciary Committee.  Her organization is DNA Saves.

She contended having DNA expunged from innocent peoples’ records is easy, involving filling out forms and putting a stamp on a letter. 

But Steve Yeager, a Clark County public defender, said it was not as simple as Sepich said. He said people would need to collect affidavits and other material for their requests to expunge DNA records and some of his clients would not be capable of doing that.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.