all things social work

Sexual Violence: DNA expansion draws rave from TV detective

on January 8, 2012


By CASEY SEILER, State editor
Published 10:15 p.m., Thursday, January 5, 2012

ALBANY — Prosecutors refer to it as “the CSI effect”: the expectation of juries schooled on police-procedural TV dramas to the notion that modern forensic technology will be able to identify the guilty based on less evidence than it might take to fill a teaspoon.

Which makes it rather appropriate that Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s call for an expansion of the state’s DNA database was followed by a statement of support from one of the stars of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

“I am so grateful to Gov. Cuomo for his leadership and support on this issue,” wrote Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson on the NBC drama. In 2004, Hargitay founded Joyful Heart, a nonprofit that works with victims of sexual and domestic abuse.

In his Wednesday address, Cuomo called for the creation of an “all-crimes” DNA database that would expand mandatory collection of material from those convicted of felonies as well as all penal law misdemeanors — a spectrum of offenses ranging from to unlawful assembly and public lewdness to first-degree loitering and unlawfully solemnizing a marriage.

The current database, Cuomo noted, has provided leads in over 2,700 convictions and led to 27 exonerations of the wrongfully accused although slightly less than half of all crimes are currently exempt from mandatory DNA collection.

Law-enforcement groups were quick to express support for the expansion. Peter R. Kehoe, executive director of the state Sheriffs’ Association, said the change would allow officers to “efficiently and effectively deliver their services to protect the public, by preventing crimes from ever occurring or making sure those who committed crimes are properly and fairly punished for their actions.”

Civil libertarians, however, said questions remained about the system that would be put in place, and whether the expansion would prove worthwhile when measured against the costs. Any scientific system, they noted, is only as trustworthy as the humans who manage it.

“Sadly, New York isn’t ‘CSI’ and in the real world DNA is not infallible,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement. “The possibility for error, fraud and abuse exists at every step from the moment that DNA is collected. We need rigorous quality assurance protocols to ensure the integrity of the state’s DNA databank.

“It’s also critical that forensic evidence is available beyond our state’s DAs,” Lieberman added, “so that innocent New Yorkers wrongly accused or convicted can clear their records.”

Reach Seiler at 454-5619 or


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