Ga. bill looks to expand DNA sampling for suspects

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News 12 First at Five/ March 10, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga.--The state of Georgia could soon start collecting DNA from accused felons before they're ever convicted of any crime. It's part of Senate Bill 135. The DNA would go into the statewide database in hopes of solving more crimes and exonerating people serving time for crimes they didn't commit.

Some worry the law violates civil liberties, but others think the pros outweigh the cons.

Judy Carpenter clutches a handmade autobiography in a 3 ring binder. The story hasn't won any awards, but it's one of the most important possessions Carpenter has. Her daughter wrote it for a school assignment a couple of years before she died.

"She said I plan on doing a lot in the future," Carpenter reads, "I want to become a pediatrician. I love kids and I want to work with them and help them."

Those words were written by Jessica Carpenter about her own future, but she never got the chance to live those dreams. She was raped and murdered 14 years ago in her Crosland Park home. For two years, investigators searched for clues. They interviewed more than 100 people to find the 17 year olds killer.

Carpenter says, "Not knowing who did it. Just going out and looking around and basically accusing every male."

It wasn't until her killer, Robert Atkins, violated his parole for something totally unrelated, and found himself back in prison, that the investigation took a turn. Georgia law changed since Atkins was last in prison. Now, the state was able to collect his DNA for the database, and there was a match. He was convicted for Jessica's murder, and he's now serving a life sentence.

"With those two years not knowing, it hanging over your head, it was a big closure for me," Carpenter says. That's why she thinks expanding the DNA database is so important.

"If it wasn't for DNA we'd still be looking. 14 years with no closure," she said.

Senate Bill 135 would change the word 'convicted' from the DNA testing bill already on the books, and replace it with 'arrested.'

Since 1988, the DNA database in Georgia has helped solve 3,867 crimes in Georgia, and 1,487 others across the country.

The ACLU argues it would violate civil liberties, saying:

"In spite of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Maryland v. King, which found a similar law to be constitutional on the federal level, we believe SB 135 would be found unconstitutional in Georgia because our state constitution offers greater privacy protections than the U.S. Constitution.

"DNA testing of arrestees has little to do with the criminal investigation relating to the arrest. Rather, it is meant to assist law enforcement with investigating unsolved crimes. While that is certainly an important government interest, courts have long found that searches related to criminal investigations require individualized suspicion. While the U.S. Supreme Court inexplicably decided to eliminate that critical safeguard on the federal level, we remain confident that Georgia courts will continue to require individualized suspicion to protect the privacy rights of those criminal suspects who remain innocent until proven guilty."