DNA testing could expand to closed cases, and Kansas could be first state to pass new law

TOPEKA, Kan. -- DNA technology is a powerful tool in criminal justice. You might be surprised about the number of cases, however, that will never see a test lab.

Most of the time in FOX4's Crime Files segment, we cover unsolved cases, or “cold cases,” where detectives need more information. There's a bill moving through the Kansas Senate that could get some of them solved.

In many crime shows or movies, cases are solved when law enforcement runs DNA through some all-encompassing database. In real life though, that doesn't happen.

Human rights activist Alvin Sykes has spent his life fighting for the rights of other people.

“DNA testing, when they do the search, they look at just open cases -- those that are unsolved. They skip over the closed cases," he said.

Sykes didn’t go to high school or college, but he likes to say he graduated “from the library.” He spent most of his late teens and early 20s reading. The lack of a degree hasn't stopped him from getting an education. He taught himself about the legal system.

He's done so much work that Innocence Project teamed up with him for Senate Bill 102.

“They said, ‘If you really want to do something too that has a nuts and bolts type of impact on wrongful convictions, it would be this here,'" Sykes said. "It was what I call one of those ‘duh’ moments. When they explained to me it was like, this is too simplistic. I mean, this should already be being done."

They got to work.

“The credit for this goes to the Innocence Project and Alvin Sykes, who is with the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, who badgered me frankly to take a look at this," Kansas State Sen. David Haley said. "I really didn't get it frankly, what they were talking about. I thought [this happens] already, through CODIS.”

The FBI runs CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. But it doesn`t check closed cases. A closed case is when someone is charged, convicted and sentenced -- the end.

But what if that person didn't commit the crime and DNA could prove it? There isn't a system in place now anywhere in the country where DNA is checked against those closed cases.

Supporters of this bill say there should be.

“This is something that's saying when we have someone who's already convicted, when there is a case that is closed, but the evidence may not have matched the defendant who was convicted," said Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.

Bushnell believes the bill will accomplish two things: preventing future crime and freeing people who don't belong behind bars.

"When the evidence is suggesting that somebody else did it, how are we making sure that we're keeping the public safe, preventing wrongful, correcting wrongful convictions, going forward together?” she said.

The bill calls for the creation of a Closed Case Task Force made up of 14 people from different backgrounds: prosecutors, crime victims, lawmakers, investigators.

“They would go over and develop protocol on how do you do this, how do you make sure that the hits gets delivered to the district attorney and the defense attorney and that whole process. The devil in the details type of thing," Sykes said.

If it passes, Haley hopes it'll set the precedent for the rest of the country.

“Frankly, that's why I get a little giddy at the fact that this is really a common sense measure," he said. "It's just never been employed. To have Kansas be usually the last of progressive measures, to be the first in this case is something, that has me very excited.”

Bills go through a long process before they become law. The people who support this bill say it's worth it.

“I give them the credit really for bringing this to me," Haley said. "All I did, all I am is a go-between. I'm the conduit that had it drafted and that will hopefully shepherd it through the committee process and get a vote on it, so that we can employ it and have Kansas be the first of what hopefully will be all over this country, that'll just take this common-sense measure into our judicial system.”

There was no opposition to the bill at last Tuesday's Senate hearing in Topeka. Next, it will get heard on the Senate floor. If it passes, it'll move on to the Kansas House. You can read Senate Bill 102 here.

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