By Nick Needham
Edited by Katie Gambrell
Updated Oct 29, 2008
Original April 23, 2008
Update: The bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford for a second straight year. Sanford said the government should need a conviction, court order or warrant to get genetic information.
The Legislature overrode the veto during a special budget session in October, and Sanford threatened a lawsuit if legislators did not reverse course when the new session convenes in January 2009.
Even as the head of the state's forensic laboratory says his staff is overworked and has thousands of DNA cases backlogged, some lawmakers and others are again pushing a bill that could vastly expand the number of genetic samples the lab has to handle.
So far, the measure, which was vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford last year, remains hung up in the S.C. House. If it becomes law, it would allow sampling a person's DNA during an arrest instead of waiting for a felony conviction, potentially allowing a genetic profile to be created much earlier in the process.
Law enforcement officers would be allowed to do a mouth swab before the accused person appeared before a judge. Currently, DNA can only be taken by a blood test, and then only after a conviction when the person reports to prison or to a parole officer.
Advocates of collecting DNA earlier say it would provide more of a chance to use the information to bolster claims of guilt or innocence. But Sanford, in his veto message last year, cited privacy concerns.
A 2003 national study by Washington State University said it took an average of 30 weeks to get a complete profile into a law enforcement system.
South Carolina fits that mold. Capt. Ira Jeffcoat, who runs the forensics lab at the State Law Enforcement Division, said SLED has an overworked staff with a backlog of DNA profiles to process and thousands of cases to be analyzed.
The bill's supporters are frustrated. They say it's hung up because the Senate, which sent the bill to the House in January, did not properly explain what the measure would do.
That's why the House would not override Sanford's veto last year, said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter. He heads the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee that is hearing the bill. As for the Senate's resurrection of the bill this year, Smith said,"This just sounds like political posturing in an election year to me."
But a different view of the House's reluctance comes from Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims' Council and one of the proposal's biggest advocates. Hudson said she struggled last year to tell House lawmakers the basics of forensic DNA before the vote.
"It's like talking to people who still believe the Earth was flat," Hudson said. "People need to understand what DNA does and doesn't do."
While DNA may seem like the "fingerprint of the 21st century" in movies and on TV shows like "CSI," the Washington State study found most state DNA labs overworked, understaffed and not properly funded.
According to the report, nearly a quarter of all law enforcement agencies don't attempt to collect DNA from crime scenes because they have no suspect.
Jeffcoat said the proposed change in South Carolina's law, if enacted, would certainly increase the number of samples added to SLED's current 120,000 profiles.
"The larger the database the more effective it is," Jeffcoat said. "This would also allow us to create a DNA profile much faster," meaning potentially earlier in the legal process.
Of those 120,000 profiles, 1,300 have been used in cold case investigations, Jeffcoat said, about 1 percent of all samples taken since the database was created in 1994.
Other states also show low percentages of DNA use in cold cases, according to the 2003 study. In Virginia, with 269,709 genetic samples - more than twice those in South Carolina - 4,560 or just below 2 percent have provided any leads.
Last year, in his veto message, Sanford said South Carolina's database was already growing too large, making it difficult to control and use effectively.
"By limiting DNA collection to those who have been convicted of a crime, we ensure that no DNA is collected unless that person has been granted due process of rights and has experienced a full vetting by the judicial system," the governor said.
But the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, sees things differently. "It just makes sense; we already have a federal database that does this," Malloy said. DNA "gives us a lot more information," he said.
The proposal to take DNA samples at arrest, rather than after conviction, came out of the South Carolina Criminal Justice System Task Force to help convict the guilty and free the innocent. But because not everyone in the House understands that point, Smith said he will put the bill back on his House Judiciary subcommittee's calendar to give senators and supporters one final chase to make a compelling case.
Otherwise, Smith said, "The House has already spoken on the matter."