In the case of Morgan Harrington who was murdered in 2009, several opportunities to match DNA found at the crime scene were missed. While authorities were able to connect Jesse Matthew, Jr. from a forensic standpoint, even though he had been accused of sexually assaulting two other women dating back to 2002 and 2003, they were unable to arrest him in Harrington’s case.
Unfortunately, because the two women refused to press charges on Matthew, under state law his DNA was never taken and added to the databank. Then in 2010, he was arrested and convicted on a trespassing charge but as a misdemeanor, again no DNA was required.
However, after being charged in the death of Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia student whose body was found just a few miles from that of Harrington’s, his DNA was finally obtained through a cheek swab. It was then that authorities were finally able to link Matthew with Harrington’s death. If his DNA had been obtained for any one of the prior three crimes, Harrington would be alive.
This has prompted Hannah Graham’s father, John, as well as the mother of Harrington, Gil, to create a not-for-profit of her organization called “Next Girl”. As stated by John, the technology is available for finding killers and therefore, it should be used. He added that the number of high-profile crimes continues to grow and that this is the time for change.
While there are many supporters of the DNA databank, there are critics as well. For instance, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia’s executive director, Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, expanding the databank creates major concerns pertaining to constitutional and privacy rights. She also stated the expansion could make existing racial issues within the criminal justice systems worse.
In her statement, Gastanaga also said that there is no way to tell how the databank would be used in the future. She questioned if the expansion require everyone with a specific marker to give DNA samples, whether it would be used to predict disease, dangerous tendencies, and even mental health issues.
In spite hers and others concerns, DNA databanks have been expanded throughout the country. Law enforcement officials and lawmakers feel this is an excellent way to prevent new crimes as in the case of Harrington but also help solve cold cases.
In 1989, Virginia became the first state to create a DNA databank for violent felonies, with many other states following. Today, there are 48 states that collect DNA for all individuals convicted of a felony. Only Missouri and Minnesota collect DNA for a limited number of felonies relating to violence and sex acts. In Virginia, along with 41 other states, DNA is required for certain misdemeanors as well.
The bill that lawmakers in Virginia are looking at now would expand the list of misdemeanors for which DNA samples are taken. Although the bill has not yet passed, it would include crimes like stalking, indecent exposure, protective order violations, and trespassing.