DNA is one of the most reliable forms of evidence in criminal investigations today. This year, New York will become the first state in the nation to expand its DNA databank to include samples from every defendant who is convicted of any felony or any Penal Law misdemeanor. As District Attorney and chief law enforcement officer in Westchester County, I want to share with you how this significant advance in criminal investigations will work to accomplish two equally important goals, convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent.
Under present law, we collect DNA samples from convicted defendants in only 48 percent of crimes. Effective August 1, 2012, the state will expand its DNA databank to include defendants convicted of all felony as well as all Penal Law misdemeanors. A DNA sample is easily collected by swabbing the inside of an individual’s cheek and is processed at a cost of $30. Maintained under strict confidentiality laws, the DNA profile yields limited information relating only to identity and is given a numeric coding when uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. The additional pool of evidence collected under our new law will be a reliable, cost effective way to solve crimes, prevent future crimes and exonerate the innocent.
In 2006, state law expanded DNA eligible crimes to include non-violent and low level crimes, and as a result, crime scene evidence collected in over 2,900 cases was matched to DNA samples. The crimes solved were often much more serious and violent than the offense for which the DNA was collected. For example, the addition of petit larceny as a DNA qualifying offense has yielded 928 matches, including 48 homicides, 220 sexual assaults, 391 burglaries and 110 robberies. These results confirmed the importance of collecting DNA, proving that many violent criminals commit a wide range of crimes including petty offenses and that public safety will be served best by collecting DNA samples in an equally wide range of criminal convictions.
One of the most compelling illustrations of the value of expanding the DNA databank is my office’s recent prosecution and conviction of Francisco Acevedo, a serial killer who murdered three young women in Yonkers between 1989 and 1996. For two decades, these homicides remained unsolved and the killer was unaccounted for, despite the development of the same DNA profile obtained from the three crime scenes.
Acevedo was convicted in 2009 in Suffolk County for the felony crime of Driving While Intoxicated and was sent to state prison. Under the law as it then existed, Acevedo was not required to provide a DNA sample. When he sought early parole, he was required to give a DNA sample which was uploaded to CODIS. It matched the profile developed from the forensic evidence recovered at each murder scene. Acevedo was indicted for these three previously unsolved murders, convicted and sentenced to 75 years to life in state prison. Under the new law, all defendants convicted of any felony must provide the DNA sample.
As important and powerful a tool as DNA is for convicting the guilty, it is equally important in exonerating the innocent. Countless innocent suspects have been ruled out in the early stages of criminal investigations. DNA has also been used to exonerate the innocent who were wrongfully convicted and, in two cases, identify the person who actually committed the crimes. The new law also provides access for defendants to obtain DNA testing under certain circumstances, both before trial and following a guilty plea or guilty verdict at trial. These provisions are intended to expand access to evidence to demonstrate a defendant’s innocence and to address the issue of wrongful convictions.
New York’s new law providing for the collection of DNA from a far broader range of convicted criminals will put us in a better position to solve crime, prevent victimization, and exonerate the innocent.