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DNA Evidence Is No Panacea for Solving Crimes: Huge Backlogs, Inept Testing and Corruption Stand in the Way

Laws expanding DNA collection from people accused of crimes are passing in states across the country. But it doesn't mean that justice will be done.

In late summer 2003, 22-year-old Katie Sepich, a business student at New Mexico State University, was savagely raped, strangled, her body set on fire and then abandoned in a city dump site.

Katie's grief-stricken parents, Jayann and David Sepich, devoted themselves to seeking justice for their daughter. In September 2003, they published a heartrending plea in the NMSU newspaper, asking students and members of the community to come forward with any possible information that might lead police to her killer.

"The events that night have created a black hole in the souls and hearts of our family and those who knew and loved Katie," they wrote. "… Now is the time to come forward and help us keep this person(s) from hurting anyone else."

Some of you may possess information that could be useful to help us obtain closure so we can move on with our lives. Please help us! It is important that you think about what you were doing and what you experienced from the afternoon of Aug. 30 to the afternoon hours of Aug. 31. Did you experience anything that made you feel uncomfortable about a friend or a loved one?

While there was no immediate suspect in the case, investigators were able to take a DNA sample from skin and blood of Katie's attacker found under her fingernails. The sample was sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's national DNA database, where it would be matched against DNA profiles of criminals across the country.

"They are arresting people every day, so soon we'll know who killed Katie," Jayann Sepich said at the time. But when she and her husband realized that most states did not require DNA samples from all people arrested for felonies, the Sepichs were outraged.

They launched a mission to pressure states across the country to pass legislation that would force law enforcement to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a violent felony such as homicide, rape, kidnapping, carjacking or assault.

They named it "Katie's Law."

Fortunately, for the Sepichs, DNA eventually led detectives to find the man who raped and killed their daughter. Gabriel Avilla, 27, confessed to the crime in 2006. His arrest was upheld as a perfect argument for expanding existing DNA databases in states across the country.

In 2008, the Sepichs founded the nonprofit DNA Saves, whose mission is to "educate policy makers and the public about the value of forensic DNA."

"Had a DNA sample been taken from Katie's murderer ... upon arrest for an unrelated crime, the Sepichs would have discovered who killed their daughter only three months after her death," the Web site says. "Instead, Avilla remained free to victimize more unsuspecting daughters, while the Sepichs waited for answers.

"DNA Saves is committed to working with every state to pass laws allowing DNA to be taken upon arrest and to provide meaningful funding for DNA programs."

The Sepichs have attracted much publicity and support  -- People magazine recently did a profile on their efforts to pass versions of "Katie's Law" across the country -- and it's not hard to see why. DNA technology has not only revolutionized forensics; post-conviction DNA testing has also led to the exoneration of 240 wrongfully convicted people, including prisoners on death row.

Thanks to such results, along with classic tough-on-crime politics, DNA databases have exploded.

Today, every state, as well as the federal government, requires DNA testing of anyone who has been convicted of a felony. Soon, this will also include people who are arrested -- i.e., merely suspected of -- committing a felony. Some 21 states require testing of anyone arrested for a federal crime.