Arrestee DNA and Rape: One Prosecutor's Story Arrives at Supreme Court

PHOTO: U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., is seen in this May 13, 2012 file photo.

When the Supreme Court hears a case challenging a Maryland DNA law this week, one former prosecutor will be remembering the dormant rape case she says was solved because of the law.

At issue before the court is the Maryland DNA Collection Act, a law that allows officials to take the DNA from those who have been arrested, but not convicted of a serious crime. Read the legal case here:

Elizabeth Ireland, the former prosecutor from Wicomico County, Maryland, knows the Supreme Court arguments will revolve around the legal standard the Justices should apply in analyzing the law. But she says she will be thinking back to 2009 when she was notified that there was a "DNA hit" on a rape case that had been unsolved for six years.

"I went to visit the victim, to tell her they had finally matched the DNA retrieved after she had been raped, with a man who had recently been arrested," Ireland said in an interview.

The victim, who told Ireland she had nailed shut her windows in the years following the crime, was relieved that authorities had a name—Alonzo Jay King Jr. The victim had never seen the attacker because he had a scarf over his face and a hat pulled over his head. After he raped her she went to the hospital and underwent a sexual assault forensic exam and semen was collected. The sample was loaded into a DNA data base, but no matches were returned—until 2009.

"I remember the victim telling me in 2009, 'Thank God, I can stop wondering," Ireland said. At the time Ireland was told by a scientist that the DNA evidence was strong. "Here's how he put it: it was 3.9 quadrillion times more likely that the DNA had originated from the victim and Mr. King than from the victim and some unknown male," Ireland says.

King's lawyers moved to suppress the evidence of the DNA match, saying that the initial draw violated his constitutional rights. But the lower court later found King guilty of first-degree rape and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Last April Ireland was stunned when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against a key provision of the law. "We saw a carefully crafted collection statute," she said, " that closely matches similar laws in 27 other states."

But opponents of the law say it allows officials to run rough shod over the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, points out that before King was ever linked to the 2003 rape he was in jail for assault. The prosecutors could have waited for a conviction in the assault case –which carries a penalty of up to ten years--before taking his DNA.

"What we want in our DNA databases is DNA from people who have actually been involved in criminal conduct," says Risher, "and the way we do that is to take it from those people who have been convicted. What arrestee testing does is to take DNA from people—many who haven't done anything wrong."

"It's a violation of privacy, a huge waste of resources and it doesn't do anything to make us any safer," he says.

Steven D. Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), also opposes the law.

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