DNA testing would help police catch the guilty

It’s the nightmare of every mother and father: your child is missing, then found murdered.

Jayann Sepich from New Mexico has lived through it. Her daughter, Katie, was raped, murdered and dumped in a garbage pile. Then her body was set on fire.

Jayann testified before my committee this week in Olympia. What she said was important. Not just because of her pain; but because she had a story that could help us catch rapists and murders. We can protect daughters like Katie.

House Bill 1382

As the former Police Commander of a homicide/violent crimes task force, I know that murderers and rapists leave little conclusive evidence behind. Even if the victim survives, an eyewitness description is tough to use to help find the suspect, much less get a conviction.

It’s even tougher when the witness is dead.

You know what catches rapists and murderers who work hard at not getting caught? DNA evidence. It’s a silver bullet.

Katie fought for her life. She scratched and clawed and got her killer’s skin and blood underneath her fingernails. Even with her body burned, detectives were able to get good DNA samples of the killer.

Her killer was no criminal mastermind. He was arrested many times, including once three months after Katie’s murder. But they didn’t check his DNA against Katie’s case, because it was against the law at the time.

Three years later her killer was convicted of something else and his DNA went into the system. Three long and heart-breaking years.

How many other women did he hurt or kill during those three years?

Because Jayann Sepich fought for her daughter’s memory, New Mexico passed Katie’s Law, and when the law went into effect at midnight, there was a “hit” at 1:14 a.m. the next morning. It was a DNA match to a cold murder case.

A murderer immediately stopped dead in his tracks.

Catch the guilty and

protect the innocent

Opponents of DNA testing on arrest are afraid DNA reveals too much about a person. Medical information. Private things.

But the police don’t use DNA for anything except identification, like fingerprints. Police crime labs aren’t equipped to do medical diagnosing like hospitals. We neither have, nor want that technology. We only use 13 to 15 genetic markers out of 3 million, and those markers were specifically chosen because they don’t reveal anything medical.

As a direct result of New Mexico’s law, an innocent man who had spent 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit was freed. This occurred when DNA match from another arrest found the real killer.

In a free and civilized society, how can there be a greater defense of civil liberty than protecting a person from being wrongly incarcerated for the rest of their life?

Fingerprints revolutionized law enforcement, as criminals have used fake names for centuries. No one disputes either the value or the validity of fingerprint evidence as being an indispensable law enforcement tool. DNA is this century’s version of fingerprints.

Although fingerprints aren’t common at crime scenes, DNA generally is, especially with violent and sex crimes. The worst crimes. But DNA goes a step further. It cannot only be used to convict the guilty, unlike fingerprints, it has the power to exonerate the innocent.

Why we need DNA

testing on arrest

In 2005, Carlos Anthony Dias was arrested after he rammed a police vehicle. After that arrest, he went on a spree of home invasions where he would repeatedly enter homes with a gun, tie everyone up, then rape the girls and women.

During one attack, a mother sat helplessly, tied up, as her 13 and 15-year-old daughters were raped.

If a DNA cheek swab had been taken at the time of the original arrest, he would have been caught and arrested after the first attack, not the sixth.

Dias would have been in Walla Walla instead of committing his second home invasion and rape.

After spending 25 years as a police detective, I know how hard it is to catch the worst of the worst. Although some might argue it’s inconvenient to take a cheek swab from a burglar, I think it’s a lot more inconvenient for you or your family members to be subjected to the consequences of that burglar also being a serial rapist or killer that could have been stopped with DNA evidence.

Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, is a retired undercover detective and commander of a homicide task force. He is chair of the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee and a co-sponsor of Katie’s Law (House Bill 1382) by Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way.