Occupy Murder Mess Points To Problems With New York’s DNA Database

Wednesday, the nation was peppered with breathless, if thinly sourced, reports of a shocking link between two very different, seemingly unrelated crimes: a match between DNA samples lifted from the CD player owned by and found near the corpse of slain Juliard student Sarah Fox in 2004 and ones taken from a chain used to open a gate in a free-subway-rides stunt backed by Occupy Wall Street in March. OWS MURDER LINK, blared the New York Post cover.

But just as quickly as the story had arrived, it fizzled, undone by multiple reports that the DNA belonged not to a suspected killer, but rather to a NYPD lab technician.

It was a high-profile embarrassment for New York State’s use of DNA samples that also raised new questions about the NYPD’s much-criticized treatment of Occupy Wall Street. (Occupy was also in the news Wednesday after a group marching from Philadelphia briefly returned to Zuccotti Park) Perhaps foremost among those questions: How was the apparent error missed, and the Occupy-murder angle pushed to the press, when the ME’s office contends that it has records of all its workers’ DNA to avoid just this sort of false match?

In March, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law greatly expanding the state’s databank, which now collects DNA from anyone convicted of any crime, even a misdemeanor (the sole exception is for those without criminal records convicted of public possession of small amounts of marijuana)—giving the state one of the nation’s most extensive and intrusive DNA policies. At the time, critics, including The New York Times, charged that the law was unfairly tilted in favor of prosecuting alleged criminals rather than exonerating falsely convicted ones.

In one sense, the current investigation is a separate issue—no one is arguing that police don’t have the right to collect evidence from a crime scene and test it for DNA, which the law views in a far different light than the more invasive process of collecting DNA from a human being. So the NYPD could have tested the chain even before the new law went into effect. But this incident still fits firmly into the broader set of concerns civil liberties groups have about the manner in which New York deals with DNA evidence.

“There are plenty of entirely innocent reasons and explanations as to why one’s DNA may turn up at a crime scene,” said Robert Perry, Legislative Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “but in the popular imagination and even in the minds of some law enforcement professionals, DNA evidence takes on almost magical properties. Meaning its very presence at a crime scene may come to signify guilt.”

“In the popular imagination and even in the minds of some law enforcement professionals, DNA evidence takes on almost magical properties.”

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