Bill in Olympia dies; convicted criminals' DNA still untested in Seattle

by: Casey McNerthney, Amy Clancy Updated:

After a KIRO 7 investigation showed that DNA from more than 100 convicted criminals in Seattle was not being tested -- mostly from sexually motivated crimes -- Republican and Democratic lawmakers pledged to take action this year.

But the bill to solve the problem died in Olympia, and the growing caseload of untested samples will not go into the international criminal database for at least another year and a half, if a solution is found at all.

“It’s common sense,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said of the needed fix. “It will make sure we can solve crimes and probably prevent crimes, so it’s important that we do this.”

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.

The DNA of convicted criminals is not being tested because of a legal issue that needs to be fixed by the Legislature.

Convictions for the sexually motivated crimes under state law can be entered into the database. But when same convictions come through equivalent city laws, those cannot be entered.

State leaders are concerned that other municipal prosecutors in Washington -- of which there are more than 300 -- may be expecting DNA to be entered into the international criminal database, but it shouldn’t be, Holmes said.

Because of a 2012 Washington State Supreme Court Decision, municipal prosecutors can’t use the state law that would allow the DNA to be tested.

“The bill that died in appropriations was a great bill, and I am very disappointed it died,” said Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall, who pledged action after watching KIRO 7’s original investigation. But she also said there are other ways of creating policy, “and we are going to look to see if there’s another vehicle or another way to move forward.”

Law problem leads to years-long holdup

In Seattle, seven sexually motivated municipal court offenses require offender DNA samples upon conviction: sexual exploitation, violation of a sexual assault protection order, communication with a minor for immoral purposes, stalking, harassment, patronizing a prostitute, and assault with special allegation.

Those are the cases not being entered into the international database -- one that has more than 250,000 DNA samples from cases around the world.

Before King County resident Gary Ridgway was identified as the Green River Killer -- the most prolific American serial killer with 49 known victims and many more claimed – his only criminal history involved arrests for patronizing prostitutes.

Green River Killer Gary Ridgway.

Patronizing a prostitute is one of the convictions that now requires a DNA sample – but those samples aren’t being tested in city of Seattle cases.

For example, if a person was convicted of patronizing a prostitute a block north of Northeast 145th Street -- the North Seattle border -- that offender’s DNA would be added to the international criminal database.

But if a person were convicted of the same crime a block south of the North Seattle border, his or her DNA would sit with more than 100 other Seattle cases that haven’t been tested for years.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” a victim from a recent untested Seattle case told KIRO 7 last year. She did not know of the problem until she was contacted by KIRO 7. Nearly all the victims were not notified by authorities.

House Bill addressed more than Seattle’s problem

House Bill 1111, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall and others, was introduced to the House Committee on Public Safety last month.

The bill -- the original and substitute -- was not specific to Seattle’s problem. It addressed multiple aspects of DNA testing -- and those other elements were what originally brought opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

Another element of the bill addressed adding lawfully obtained biological sample from some deceased offenders, regardless of conviction date. That would help solve crimes and relieve victims who believe their unknown offender may still be at large, law enforcement advocates said.

The element of the original bill specified that people previously convicted of a violent offense would have their DNA collected at the arraignment or bail hearing for a new criminal case.

In his Jan. 23 address to the House Public Safety Committee, Mark Muenster of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the bill has “some serial constitutional issues” and cited a Washington State Supreme Court decision from 2010 saying a warrant is required to take DNA from someone. He said the expansion of police power provided by the bill is something everyone should be concerned about, and also addressed practical concerns that it could create an additional workload for district court staffs.

ACLU also opposed bill

ACLU’s Legislative Director Elisabeth Smith also spoke to the House Public Safety Committee in opposition of the original bill, and focused on the collection of DNA at arraignments or bail hearings.

She said the original bill “would invite a wave of litigation.”

“In terms of public safety there is no systemic study that shows that this kind of DNA collection actually reduces crime in the states the follow the practice,” she said on Jan. 23. “Instead, the evidence shows that database matches actually decreased in the United Kingdom after they started collecting DNA from arrestees.”

Holmes, the Seattle city attorney, disagrees with that. Speaking Tuesday of the Seattle cases waiting to be tested, he said testing DNA samples of people convicted of sexually motivated offenses does have valuable public safety benefits.

“It’s common sense,” he said.

‘Most effective crime-fighting tool’

Supporters of the original bill included Monica Alexander of the State Patrol, Tom McBride of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and James McMahan of the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs.

“Dollar for dollar, DNA remains perhaps the most effective crime-fighting tool we have at our disposal,” McMahan said. “We’ve seen in other states that have far more advanced and comprehensive DNA laws the vast crime fighting capability that provides, not only in the solving of crimes but preventing in serial offenses.”

McBride pointed out the international DNA database is confidential. He said the bill would clean up the way samples are collected, so there isn’t confusion about who collects it.

Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman, the chair of the House Public Safety Committee, talked at the Jan. 23 hearing about a conference call regarding municipal law with Orwall -- one that addressed the Seattle issue.

Alexander answered Goodman’s question that the issue was relevant to this bill, but the Seattle issue was not at clearly the forefront of the testimony in advocating for its passing.  

No Seattle representative addressed the House Committee on Public Safety during the public hearing, and none was present during the Feb. 15 public hearing of the House Appropriating Committee.

At the later hearing, Tacoma Police Detective Lindsey Wade spoke in support of the bill, saying in nearly 20 years on the job she’s seen serial offenders start off with small offensives and progress to more serious crimes.

“I do think that this bill is a good step in the right direction,” she said. “I urge you to pass this.” 

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