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Swamped with Swabs: DA's office to help gather DNA samples

November 18, 2012
By MICHAEL ANICH , The Leader Herald

GLOVERSVILLE - Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira and her staff are used to prosecuting defendants to the fullest extent of the law. They're not used to personally collecting bodily samples from them.

That could change Monday, when due to a new state DNA law and a need for the county to be fully compliant, Sira and her nine-member staff plan to take DNA samples themselves from the local criminal element, if need be.

"We're putting our money where our mouth is," says the district attorney, who supported the law. "To that end we are willing to take the samples in the county, temporarily."

Article Photos

Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira works with a cheek-swab DNA?sample during a demonstration in her office Thursday. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)

She and her staff may initially ask convicted criminals in Gloversville City Court to open their mouths for a quick swabbing procedure Sira demonstrated for a reporter this week.

The reason Sira and her office staff - now all state-trained to take DNA samples - are pitching in is because the county isn't yet fully compliant in obtaining DNA samples. The new state law went into effect Aug. 1, requiring DNA samples be taken from any defendant convicted of any crime in New York state.

Sira said before the law, which was signed in March by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, DNA samples only had to be taken for certain felonies and misdemeanors, but now they are required for almost all crimes except for the most minor offenses - violations such as disorderly conduct.

New York state is the first "all crimes DNA" state in the nation, requiring DNA samples be collected from anyone convicted of a felony or Penal Law misdemeanor. In addition, the new law also significantly expands defendants' access to DNA testing and comparison both before and after conviction in appropriate circumstances, as well as to discovery after conviction when innocence is claimed.

Cuomo wrote Sira a March 26 letter thanking her for her support of the new DNA Databank Expansion Bill.

"Your efforts and advocacy were critical to making this historic legislation a reality, and I thank you for your dedicated partnership on this issue," the governor wrote.

The Fulton County Probation Department and the County Jail staff also take DNA samples.

But Fulton County isn't 100 percent compliant with the new law yet, Sira said. And there is a particular problem in Gloversville City Court, which has the highest volume of cases in the county. Sira said the state Office of Court Administration has three full-time court officers there, but the state doesn't necessarily want the court officers to take the samples.

Sira provided a public record that names more than 20 people convicted in Fulton County who are subject to DNA collection as of Nov. 4. They include people convicted in Gloversville and in Johnstown City Court, Johnstown Town Court and Oppenheim Town Court, and some of the sentencing date back more than a year.

State Department of Criminal Justice Services spokeswoman Janine Kava said certain people can be designated to do the collection, and Sira's staff can be included.

"It's my understanding the district attorney's office will be doing the collection," Kava said. "The bottom line is making sure the collection happens."

Authorities say the best time to take the DNA samples is immediately after conviction, because some defendants won't submit to testing later.

Sira said the state Office of Court Administration wants Gloversville police to take the samples, but there is a problem with that, too.

Gloversville Police Chief Donald VanDeusen said there has been about 60 percent compliance in City Court. But with the enacting of the new DNA law, he said, he researched DNA sampling procedures and found the "first line" to secure 100 percent compliance would be to have the state's court officers obtain the samples immediately upon conviction.

Also, VanDeusen said, he doesn't want to pull his city officers off street patrols to come to City Hall at any given time to take DNA samples.

Sira said there is also the problem, logistically, of people being convicted in City Court and then actually leaving the court and physically going to the police station in another part of City Hall to submit their DNA sample.

"I'm trying to highlight this problem," she said.

In the meantime, Sira and VanDeusen said they are working on an agreement with the state Office of Court Administration to have local officers do the DNA sampling.

"We're getting some resistance on lower levels for doing this," VanDeusen said.

In her Johnstown office on Thursday, Sira and First Assistant District Attorney Chad Brown demonstrated for The Leader-Herald how quick it is for a trained person to take a DNA sample. In the demonstration, Sira first filled out a basic DNA database submission form required after conviction. She opened micro-card package with a bar code, and with gloves on, gave Brown the swab for his mouth. He placed the swab under his tongue for 30 seconds, and the sample was put on the card and into an envelope, and the swab discarded.

The person's left- and right-hand index fingers are then submitted for fingerprinting.

Sira said the DNA samples are immediately mailed to the DNA Data Bank in Albany.

She said the new law is simply good for law enforcement, providing a better and bigger pool of information.

"We know that DNA solves crimes and exonerates innocent people," she said.

State law requires that each county designate a DNA collection coordinator, and Brown is that person for Fulton County.

Sira said the county even drafted its own policy to deal with DNA collection responsibilities.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at johnstown@leaderherald.com.

 
 

 

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