DNA database to get blood samples of all Ill. homicide victims


ThNe Chicago Tribune

KANE COUNTY, Ill. - During an autopsy, Kane County Coroner Charles West routinely draws blood from a stiffening corpse, letting four droplets dry on a DNA card.

When police are investigating a case, West makes a second card to give them. But in some cases, the blood samples are simply filed away in the morgue and never entered into Illinois' growing DNA database.

But under a law taking effect in June, the blood samples of all homicide victims will be entered into the database. Authorities hope the measure will help unlock secrets about cold cases, potentially revealing that the victim of one crime had been the perpetrator of another.

"Victims of homicide, in some instances, come from a lifestyle that may have some risks to it," said Cook County Assistant State's Atty. Meribeth Mermall. "They may be taking information from other crimes to their grave."

If effective, the law may be expanded to include victims of other causes, including car accidents, suicides and heart attacks, said state Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), who sponsored the bill.

The legislation was prompted by the success of a similar law in Louisiana requiring coroners to submit blood samples from victims of all violent crimes to a DNA database.

Since that law took effect in 2003, it has helped close many unsolved crimes in areas with high gang activity, said Tammy Pruet Northrup, former DNA manager for the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab.

"This is the power of DNA," she said. "It doesn't necessarily say the deceased person did it, but it provides investigative leads."

By expanding Illinois' DNA database, officials hope the new requirement will be as effective as a 2003 law requiring DNA collection from convicted felons.

"It's just another cross reference that might possibly make a connection," said Jeff Lair, coroner in central Illinois' Morgan County. "The more information you've got, the better."

Brady said the measure will prevent potentially key DNA evidence from languishing in coroners' files.

"It's one thing to take a DNA sample and put [it] in a filing drawer in a morgue," Brady said. "It's another thing to continually review the sample for hits and leads."

West said the new law won't inconvenience him the way others have. He said his office is running out of space because of a law passed a few years ago requiring coroners to indefinitely keep all evidence related to homicides.

"We've got freezers absolutely full of specimens from homicides that we can't destroy even if the case has gone through litigation," West said.

Now the blood samples of those victims may register a match to crimes that investigators have been trying to solve for years, Mermall said.

In Louisiana, the law has helped ease the minds of rape victims who had lived in fear that their attacker could strike again, Northrup said.

"It's brought them a great deal of closure knowing that person was deceased."

Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune
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