In another milestone for the use of DNA testing in criminal cases, the state of Virginia is poised to stage the first execution in the nation based on so-called “cold-hit” testing of genetic material.
The perpetrator, James Earl Patterson, was doing time for rape - and had been scheduled for release from prison in 2004 - when his DNA turned up in testing for an unsolved 1987 rape and murder. He confessed.
Virginia leads the nation in solving crimes via DNA with a database of 175,000 samples. In 1993, it became the first state to execute a criminal based on such testing, and prosecutors have eagerly extended this valuable evidentiary capability to outstanding crimes.
Other states, including Ohio, have followed suit. Our Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation maintains a database of 32,000 samples from offenders convicted of murder, kidnapping, aggravated burglary, and sex crimes. In an attempt to snare criminals at an early stage in their careers, a bill pending in the Ohio House would add some 17,000 samples by including several lower-echelon crimes, including felonious assault, robbery, and attempted burglary.
Expansion of the law would be an aid to fighting crime. The record in Virginia has shown that offenders with a burglary conviction account for 60 percent of crimes solved via DNA testing, says Joe Case, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates has had substantial success using DNA tests in old crimes, with murder convictions in two cases and one death penalty trial pending.
But DNA cuts both ways, and can exonerate as well as convict. Last year, Toledoan Danny Brown was freed from prison after serving 19 years when genetic evidence proved he did not rape a woman he was convicted of murdering. The murder charge was dismissed.
Nationwide, there have been numerous cases in which defendants charged or convicted of capital crimes were found, via the test, to be innocent.
DNA testing has proven to be a boon to both prosecutors and defendants. That's another way of saying it is good for the criminal justice system and, thus, good for the country.