DNA Evidence – A Boon to Law Enforcement, but the Start of a Storage Nightmare

Lori Andrews by Lori Andrews

When I spoke a national meeting of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors, I was fascinated by the new forensic tools spanning every type of evidence – from photographs to footprints, from gum to guns.  But, in the hallways, between the scientific and legal presentations, the men and women working in the criminal justice system sounded a lot like 20somethings complaining about their first apartment.  Sure, there were changes in technologies.  But there was a bigger problem:  Where were they going to store all the evidence?
With the advent of DNA technologies, forensic officials who had been pack rats were able to convict people of old crimes. This past weekend, for example, a suspect was arrested for the 1989 murder of an elderly woman; modern DNA technology allowed old evidence to be analyzed.   Evidence from decades ago has also been retested through efforts like the Innocence Project, letting many innocent men go free. In fact, yesterday, the Richmond Times Dispatch announced six training sessions for volunteer lawyers on how to contact the 881 Virginia felons whose old cases included evidence ripe for potentially-exculpatory genetic testing.

With such technological miracles at hand, forensic specialists became reluctant to throw anything away.  Beds, cars, clothes – who knew what new technologies would allow the CSI of the future to coax clues out of evidence? 
The storage situation worsened in Colorado last year when, after an innocent murder suspect was freed after nine years' imprisonment, a broad law was adopted requiring storage DNA evidence from felonies. It required storage for the life of the defendant of "all reasonable and relevant evidence that may contain DNA."  A recent amendment, Colorado Statutes Section 18-1-1104, made clear that an entire large item, such as a car, need not be stored if the DNA can be lifted off the item.  The law does not require retention "if DNA evidence is of such a size, bulk, or physical character as to render retention impracticable."
But some law enforcement personnel are taking over old buildings — abandoned schools and such — just in case.  Forensic DNA technology let them re-analyze an old couch or a pair of women's panties.  Who knows what trick the next generation of investigators might have up their sleeve or what type of evidence might be implicated?

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