Fewer rapists, murderers and other violent criminals are likely to remain on the streets after the Supreme Court's June 3 ruling in Maryland v. King, which authorizes police to take DNA samples from people arrested for serious crimes.
The ruling upholds law enforcement's use of a powerful crime-fighting tool and clears a path to justice for countless victims of crime.
The King case makes a strong argument for collecting arrestees' DNA.
The case began in Wicomico County, MD, where a 53-year-old woman was brutally raped by a masked gunman in 2003.
The crime remained unsolved until 2009, when Alonso J. King, Jr., was arrested and charged with felony second-degree assault in a separate case. A DNA sample from King was collected (as allowed under Maryland's DNA Collection Act) and submitted to a state database.
A “cold hit” occurred linked King to the 2003 rape and led to King's conviction for the rape. The victim told a Wicomico County prosecutor that she had nailed her windows shut after the attack and was overwhelmingly relieved to know her attacker had been identified, convicted and imprisoned for the crime.
The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the rape conviction on the grounds that the search had violated King's Fourth Amendment rights. But the Supreme Court ruled that the search was reasonable and constitutional, and reinstated King's conviction for the 2003 rape.
The victim can now face the future without fear.
Other victims' stories underscore the power of arrestee DNA testing. In 2003 in New Mexico, 22-year-old graduate student Katie Sepich was raped, strangled to death and set on fire. A DNA profile developed from tissue under her fingernails was entered into the DNA database, resulting in a match in 2006 to the DNA profile of a man who was in prison for other crimes.
The killer had been arrested for a burglary three months after the murder. If his DNA had been collected at that point, Katie's murder could have been solved in months rather than years. That is why her parents—Jayann and Dave Sepich—founded DNA Saves to advocate for extending DNA testing to arrestees. Their website shares stories of cases solved—and victim activists mobilized—by the power of forensic DNA.
A number of recent studies show that arrestee DNA testing can also prevent future crime, especially because most criminals are repeat offenders. A 2009 Indiana study showed that each conviction of an offender prevented an average of seven to eight future crimes.
A Maryland assessment of the criminal histories of three offenders found that if DNA samples had been required on arrest, 20 crimes could have been prevented.
And an analysis by the Denver District Attorney showed that 3 murders, 18 sexual assaults, 1 attempted sexual assault, 7 kidnappings, 4 robberies, 3 felony assaults, and 11 burglaries could have been prevented or solved if five offenders had been required to submit DNA on their first arrest.
These compelling studies—and the testimony of victims—show why collecting arrestees' DNA makes sense.
We hope that the Maryland vs. King decision will encourage other states to pass laws like Maryland's (and those of 26 other states)—to hold offenders accountable more quickly and to stop releasing dangerous criminals into our communities.
The Supreme Court's decision has given Alonso King's victims—and the rest of us—some cause for hope and relief.
Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, which includes the DNA Resource Center, a repository of information and training for victims, victim service providers, and the public on forensic DNA. She welcomes comments from readers.