DNA might help Iowa close criminal cases

Secrets from the grave might help close some unsolved Iowa criminal cases, but collecting DNA samples from homicide victims likely would raise civil liberties concerns.

The chairman of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee has expressed interest in following the lead of states expanding databases in hopes of closing criminal cases.

Iowa DNA sampling is limited to convicted felons and some misdemeanor sex offenders. Illinois and Louisiana collect DNA samples from crime victims, including homicide victims, in an attempt to link them to open cases. Research has shown crime victims are likely to have committed crimes themselves.

“It’s always bothered me that we have multiple murders that never have been solved,” said Chairman Kurt Swaim, D-Bloomfield, who recalled unsolved murders during his tenure as Davis County attorney. “So if we can bring closure, I’d be interested in looking at it.”

However, collecting genetic samples from crime victims — dead or alive — would “raise a pink flag,” ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Randall Wilson said.

The concern, in part, is that although there is a reduced expectation of privacy for the dead, homicide victims have no way to defend themselves if they are implicated in a crime. But Wilson’s chief concern is the implication for the privacy rights of the living.

Pointing out that Iowa has relatively few homicide victims — 38 in 2007, according to the Department of Public Safety — Wilson said it’s important that DNA sampling targets “individuals who are chosen for a good reason and not just generalized systems that would allow the loss of privacy rights for all of us.”

Michael Peterson, criminalist supervisor

at the Criminalistics Laboratory in Ankeny, sees a trend of states expanding their DNA databases. However, he said he’s not pushing the idea of collecting samples from homicide victims out of concern of upsetting the tenuous balance between the public’s interest in solving crimes and protecting civil liberties.

“We have to realize that what we have now is so valuable we don’t want to risk it to get something of marginal value,” Peterson said.

People should be only added to the database “for a darned good reason,” Wilson said. “We want to gather DNA when the utility of the sample outweighs the loss of the right of privacy.”

Since 2005, Iowa has collected samples from 55,000 felons and certain misdemeanor sex offenders.

Out of the thousands of matches made by the Criminalistics Laboratory, Peterson said, there have been 600 incidences of biological samples from an unknown donor matching someone in the database.“It doesn’t necessarily solve your case, but you’ve got somebody to look at when you had no one to look at before,” Peterson said. “These 600 cases validate the value of the database.”