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New Orleans Criminal Justice Community Meeting: Maximizing the Potential of Forensic DNA

Remarks by Mary Lou Leary

July 21, 2008

Thank you. I appreciate the District Attorney's invitation to join you this afternoon.   I commend each of you for your dedication to strengthening the criminal justice system in New Orleans.  I spent 20 years working in the criminal justice system as a local and a federal prosecutor in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.  I know first-hand how important it is that each and every agency with a stake in the criminal justice system works together like a well-oiled machine.  An important part of that machine is a robust capacity to analyze forensic evidence, including DNA.  This afternoon, I'd like to share what the National Center for Victims of Crime has learned from thousands of victims and victim service providers inLouisiana and across the country about the importance of DNA.

The National Center for Victims of Crime works with 15,000 victim service providers nationwide to help them provide better services to victims of crime.  Last year we conducted a survey of those victim service providers to find out about the DNA issues they were encountering in their work.  They listed their top three concerns:

1. DNA evidence is not being collected and used as often as it should be;

2. DNA collection and storage are inadequate; Rape kits are not being analyzed quickly enough;

3. Victims are being poorly served by law enforcement because DNA is not being used to solve crimes other than sexual assault and homicide.

Good points-each of them.  We all know that DNA evidence holds great promise for victims of sexual assault and surviving family members of homicide victims.  But as you heard from Chris Asplen and Detective Blozis, DNA is also extremely useful in burglary cases and other property crimes, too. Because burglary is often known as a gateway crime, catching these criminals early in their career means we can prevent crime and spare future victims. As Detective Blozis has been known to say, "Today's burglar is tomorrow's rapist." 

The National Center also operates a national, toll free crime victim helpline. 1-800-FYI Call. We take hundreds of calls from victims whose cases have been significantly impacted by the availability of DNA evidence.  They tell us of their frustration whenDNA evidence is not collected or analyzed in their cases.  They don't understand the backlogs and delays. They go through a forensic exam to provide DNA evidence; then they never hear from the detective again.  On the other hand, they also tell us that the increasing use of DNA evidence in criminal cases gives them new hope that offenders will be brought to justice, even in cold cases They tell us that it takes some of the pressure off them at trial because they have science to back up their testimony.   They tell us that they want law enforcement to use every available tool to the fullest extent to solve their case.  That includes DNA.

Let me tell you a story about a particular rape victim and the impact that DNA evidence had on her life.   On May 3, 1989, Debbie Smith, a housewife in Williamsburg Virginia, was doing laundry while her husband, a detective with the Williamsburg Police Department, was upstairs sleeping after a night shift.  Debbie was alone in the kitchen.  A masked man came in the back door, dragged her to the woods behind her house, blindfolded her, robbed her, and raped her repeatedly. He promised Debbie that if she told anyone, he would come back and kill her.  Debbie reported the attack to the police and had a forensic exam at the hospital.  But because of an evidence backlog, it took 6 years to identify her attacker.  During those years, Debbie's life unraveled.  Debbie became anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. She lived with constant worry that her attacker would return and kill her. She looked at men on the street, and wondered, "Is that the man who raped me?" She was afraid to leave her house.  Debbie's husband and two young children watched the happy and positive woman they had known become a shell of her former self.  One day in 1995, as her husband got out of his cruiser at the police station, his chief approached him and said, "Rob, we got him."   Debbie's attacker had been identified through a DNA database match.  The man who raped Debbie had been in prison all those years for raping two other women.  He was convicted of the crimes against Debbie and sentenced to two life terms plus 25 years in prison.  Knowing that her attacker was behind bars and could not hurt her, her family or anyone else brought Debbie a great sense of relief and peace. She said she finally felt alive again.  Now Debbie travels across the country telling her story and advocating for funds to eliminate the backlog.

Families of homicide victims and loved ones of missing persons may experience the same emotions that Debbie felt.  In unsolved homicide cases, families often feel the system has forgotten them or that their loved one doesn't matter.  They feel anger, sadness, and anxiety that the person who committed the murder has escaped justice.  Many refer to their lives as being "on hold" while they wait for information and answers.  When a perpetrator is identified and the waiting is over, faith in the system can be restored and families can find some sense of peace and justice.   For some victims, merely knowing the identity of the perpetrator can provide some relief. 

Right here in Morrow, Louisiana, Joyce Picket was murdered in 1985.  Everyone believed the perpetrator was her grandson but there was not sufficient evidence to make a case.  When the investigating officer was questioning the grandson, he noticed a spot of blood the size of a pin head on his shoes.  The investigator collected the shoes.  Needless to say at that time, DNA technology was not what it is today.  In 2000, the shoes were resubmitted to the Crime Lab.  The blood was a match to Mrs. Picket and her grandson was arrested and convicted of her murder.  For 15 years the victim's family thought that her murder would never be solved.  You can imagine what it meant to them to finally l to have some closure.  Believing that justice had been done at last, they could move on with rebuilding their lives.

These stories illustrate how powerful DNA evidence is and the impact it has on the lives of crime victims.  In each of these cases,DNA brought justice to victims who would have been unlikely to get any relief without it. And their offenders would have escaped justice and gone on to victimize others.   I hope these victims' stories, and the stories of other victims you have known and worked with over the years, motivate you as you set to work on the challenge that is facing you today.  

Putting a new crime lab in place in New Orleans is both a tremendous task, and a tremendous opportunity. Starting from scratch, you have the chance to dream big and create the best, most state-of-the-art lab in the country.  In addition to creating a top-notch physical and technical infrastructure for that lab, I encourage you to spend time and effort developing high-quality practices, policies and protocols that respect the needs of victims of crime, particularly their need for information.

We often hear from victims that one of their biggest complaints about their interactions with the criminal justice system is the lack of information given them.  In the survey of victim service providers we conducted last year, we found that 88% of respondents had no written information about DNA to give victims.  In response to this, the National Center has developed brochures for victims, law enforcement, and victim service providers to use in their work with victims.  Those brochures are on the table.  Please pick some up and order more on our web site, ncvc.org..  These materials are not a replacement for face-to-face discussions but they can be used as a compliment to personal interactions.

Victims also want to be given timely notice of events and developments in their cases that impact them.  We know that victims who stay informed throughout the process are much better witnesses and stay engaged with the case as it progresses.  For example, some victims in cold cases really appreciate a regular check- in with a detective for a status update.

Some victims would rather be notified only when the offender is located.  Think outside the box about how to maximize victims' interactions with the system while being flexible enough to make it work for each individual.     In California, they passed a VictimsDNA Bill of Rights.  This law requires notification to victims throughout the process, including notice when the DNA profile of the assailant developed from their rape kit has been entered into theDNA database.  For many victims of sexual assault, this could be a lifeline and a sign of hope that their offender may one day be brought to justice. 

I appreciate the opportunity to share with you a snapshot of how important DNA evidence is to victims of crime.  It is my hope that as you tackle the task of bringing a new crime lab capacity to New Orleans, you will think big about what is possible for the future. Think about not only current sexual assault and homicide victims, but also cold cases, and the families of missing persons. Think about the world of possibilities presented by DNA-as Chris Asplen and Joe Blozis discussed.  Think about putting those things in place now that will make this lab, and this criminal justice system, the pride of the state, the region, and the country. After all that New Orleans has suffered, both pre- and post-Katrina, this city deserves nothing less.