Florida’s DNA Testing Campaign Solves Cases and Frees the Innocent

February 24, 2022 Criminal Defense

Florida started a campaign to overhaul the oft-delayed DNA testing process. From 2016 to 2019, the state prioritized logging and processing thousands of sexual assault kits, kits that usually have high wait times (anywhere from weeks to months after the kit is completed). The reason for this sudden change in handling sexual assault kits? A directive from the Florida Legislature from 2015 ordering law enforcement to investigate the amount of untested sexual assault kits in local law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the directive also ordered law enforcement to create a plan to test all of the kits found.

The Sexual Assault Kit Project

On September 20, 2019, the project concluded and a press release was published with the results. According to the press release, “8,023 sexual assault kits were processed resulting in 1,814 CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) hits.” CODIS is essential in solving these cases because it “enables federal, state and local agencies to compare DNA profiles electronically, linking crimes to each other and known offenders.” “A sexual assault kit (SAK) is a package that contains items collected from the body of a sexual assault victim. The items, including swabs from the body, are collected by a medical professional and documented on accompanying forms. The kit can be processed by a laboratory and the results used to aid law enforcement investigations and the courts in the pursuit of criminal prosecution.”

Thanks to this project, the backlog was completely eliminated, and “procedures were adopted and advances made in an effort to prevent future backlogs.” A future solution proposed is to manage the backlog “through outsourcing a portion of SAKs, obtaining additional robotics through federal funding, and utilizing overtime funds to allow scientists to conduct technical reviews of these cases and upload them to the FBI’s National Combined DNA Indexing System.” The cost of such an effort? About $9 to $39 million.

Cases Resolved

Though several cases were probably resolved due to this overhaul in DNA testing, a big case solved is the 1982 murder of an eleven-year-old girl from St. Lucie County, a cold case haunting Florida for decades. Due to this project, a former Florida deputy, James Harrison, was named “the only probable suspect” in the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of Lora Ann Huizar on November 6, 1983. At the time, Harrison was serving as a deputy for the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. The project helped solve the case in the following way:

Years after Harrison’s death in 2008, a DNA lab recovered unknown male DNA from Huizar’s sexual assault kit. In response to the new evidence, cold case detectives exhumed Harrison’s body, but a comparison was not possible due to the DNA’s degradation, the report said. Those familiar with the original investigation told investigators Harrison had instructed two witnesses to leave the scene roughly 20 minutes before additional law enforcement arrived. Detectives also learned the location and position of the victim’s body differed from initial witness accounts.

Deputies said they established probable cause that Harrison later altered the crime scene by placing the victim in a drainage ditch in an attempt to destroy physical evidence.

Many other cases have been solved due to the use of DNA evidence and the processing of backlogged DNA kits. However, Florida’s governor signed a law limiting the use of genetic evidence to solve cases.

Gov. DeSantis Limits DNA Evidence

Governor DeSantis signed House Bill 833 into law, limiting the use of “genetic evidence to catch criminals.” To read more on HB 833 please visit our blog post here. HB 833 limited how sites used by law enforcement to compare DNA samples like Ancestry.com or GEDmatch could be used by law enforcement in the interest of protecting donor privacy. Now, the “unauthorized use of the DNA … comes with penalties, both money and prison time.” Donors to such sites must give their express consent to the extraction or use of their DNA in a crime-solving manner. GEDMatch released a statement concerning their database and the use of DNA submitted:

While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes,” the statement said. “If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded.

New Bill Seeking to Expand Use of DNA for Death Penalty Exoneration

House Bill 1477 was filed on January 10, 2022 and seeks to require “de novo review of evidence in certain death penalty cases” and provide “defendants sentenced to death [the] right to access DNA evidence without interference from specified offices.” On January 11, 2022, it was read in the House, and on January 16, 2022, it was referred to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee, the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, the Judiciary Committee, and is now in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee. Some interesting text from the bill:

The Legislature finds that the State of Florida leads the nation in exonerations of persons sentenced in capital cases. The intent of this act is to enable every potentially innocent individual sentenced in a capital case to exhaust every opportunity to prove his or her innocence and preserve life … [t]he court shall review the evidence de novo if no physical evidence was presented and the conviction and sentence were largely based on witness testimony … [n]otwithstanding any other provision of law, a person charged with a capital offense shall maintain his or her right to access DNA evidence without interference from the Attorney General or a state attorney.”

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

Accessing evidence is vital in defending against criminal charges. Though physical evidence can be used to convict, it can also be used to prove innocence. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime where physical or DNA evidence is at play, contact a qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm will ensure all evidence for and against you is properly handled, tested, and analyzed. Give us a call at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Gabi D’Esposito

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