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DNA Advancements Laid Before Kentucky Judiciary Panel

Laura Sudkamp with the Kentucky State Police crime lab remembers when it took months to process one DNA sample.

“You literally had to stick the film in the freezer for six to eight weeks,” the KSP Central Lab manager told the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary Friday. Her lab can now generate a profile on a DNA sample in one or two days, she said, but even that’s a bit longer than need be under some new technology.

Enter rapid DNA testing, which allows DNA to be processed and possibly matched to an individual in two hours or less.  The technology was first used by the U.S. military and is now put to use in some labs, with federal plans underway to allow it to be used at booking stations like jails.

Sudkamp wonders if a time will come when the technology is used here in Kentucky, too.

She appeared before the committee with KSP Lt. Col. John Bradley and DNA database supervisor Regina Wells to discuss the idea of DNA collection upon felony arrest—something that 31 states now allow for some or all felony arrests, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Combined with rapid DNA technology, samples collected in Kentucky could produce a match (if there is one) in open cases involving serious offenses in two hoursor less, she said.

“It’s a big change in the technology,” she said, adding that rapid DNA testing can also be used to identify mass casualties from plane crashes or other events, and potentially be used in sexual assault cases.

But there is some resistance to DNA collection by law enforcement, something Lt. Col. Bradley admitted but challenged. He called DNA collection “an identification service that’s much more precise than fingerprints” and useful in both exoneration and conviction.

Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson) said she opposes DNA collection in pre-conviction scenarios. She suggested that lawmakers who are considering approving DNA testing upon arrest also consider taking law enforcement out of the testing scenario.

“We might ought to in the interest of justice, and efficiency sometimes, look at moving it out of the purview of law enforcement and actually letting it be independent,” she told the committee.

Sudkamp tried to assuage some concerns about DNA collection from arrestees. She told lawmakers that a DNA sample from someone who is not convicted or who has their case expunged would have their DNA removed from the DNA database. And she said that her lab has the capability to handle an increase in DNA samples should Kentucky agree to DNA collection upon felony arrest.

“We are right now turning around our convicted offenders within 7 to 9 days,” she said. “We can handle 104,000 samples and we get about 55,000 felony arrests a year.”

The KSP brought a rapid DNA testing kit to the meeting to demonstrate how it works. One lawmaker who volunteered to have his DNA profiled was the committee Co-Chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville) who is a self-professed advocate for arrestee DNA collection. 

“I was happy to get swabbed… If you didn’t get swabbed you missed your chance,” joked Westerfield.

One thing Westerfield was serious about is ensuring that operators of rapid DNA testing equipment be trained and certified, should the Kentucky General Assembly allow rapid DNA testing to be used at booking stations in the state. Sudkamp assured him that they would be registered, certified and trained.

Rapid DNA is an advancement of an older technology, said Lt. Col Bradley. It is ultimately up to Kentucky’s policy makers, he said, to decide how to proceed.

“I think we can have debate about that and decide the most efficient way, both as an Executive branch and as a General Assembly body,” he said. “The first brick in building that road is to let you all know what’s out there.”

Discussion about substance abuse treatment used by the state Department of Corrections, foster parenting, and a registry for “putative” fathers — men who claim or are alleged to be the fathers of children whose mothers the men weren’t married to at the time of the child’s birth —was also on the meeting agenda.

From the Legislative Research Commission