By Ronnie Ellis, CNHI News Service
Katie Sepich was a 22-year old college graduate from New Mexico in 2003 when she was brutally raped, murdered and her body set on fire.
She had fought for her life and forensic investigators found DNA evidence left by her attacker. Three years later DNA determined the identity of her attacker. But in those three years, the man committed several other rapes.
Katie’s mother, Jan Sepich, implored the Kentucky House Judiciary Committee to approve a bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, which would allow collection of DNA evidence from those arrested for felony crimes.
Sepich said the proposed legislation would convict “these monsters who are hunting down and slaughtering our children.”
The bill is modeled on one passed in New Mexico after her mother’s efforts to get it enacted.
Collection of DNA evidence, Sepich said, can also prevent the wrongful imprisonment of innocent defendants.
One California rapist and murderer was finally caught and convicted through use of DNA evidence, Sepich testified, after another man had been wrongfully convicted of the crime and had spent 11 years in prison.
During those 11 years, the actual perpetrator raped and killed 12 others before the DNA testing linked him to the original crime, resulting in the release of the wrongfully convicted man.
Under the bill, anyone whose DNA is collected and then found innocent can apply for expungement of the record from the national DNA database. Sepich said the database is completely secure and has never been breached.
Marzian said the initial cost to Kentucky to would be between $1.3 and $1.6 million but federal grants are available under a law named for Katie Sepich to help with the initial setup. The law would not apply to misdemeanors.
But the bill also contains a clause which would allow the state to delay implementation or suspend use of the program if it proved too costly.
Sepich testified that 25 other states have such laws and of those, 13 restrict the collection of DNA only to those arrested for violent felonies. But Sepich said in the states which collect DNA from all felony defendants, several crimes have been solved which couldn’t have been without the evidence.
J. Michael Brown, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, called the measure “a no-brainer.”
But not everyone is entirely comfortable with the idea.
Ernie Lewis, the state’s former Chief Advocate and the legislative agent for Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense, said the bill implies a presumption of guilt by those arrested but who have not yet been convicted.
“Where do we draw the line?” Lewis asked rhetorically. “What are we presuming about a person who has been arrested? Are we presuming guilt?”
Derek Selznick of the American Civil Liberties Union said a major concern is the number of people who are arrested – and might be found innocent – but never charged.
He and Lewis suggested lawmakers consider applying the law only to those arrested for violent crimes and that expungement of the DNA samples for those found innocent be automatic without requiring the acquitted defendant to apply.
Sepich said, however, that would double the cost of the program.
Some of the attorneys on the committee voiced similar concerns to those raised by Lewis and Selznick but, in the end, the committee sent the measure to the full House.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.