Room 473-B
State House
Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2230
District Office
585A Main St.
Winchester, MA 01890
Telephone: (617) 721-7285 or (617) 438-7185

A View from the Hill

CONTACT: Erica Quigley (617) 722-2240


In the movies it used to be easy. The good guys wore the white hats, the bad guys dressed in black, and at the end of the show, the hero rode off with the fair maiden into a sunset of happiness. Although these quaint and formulaic scripts created countless entertaining movies for decades, identifying the good guys and bad guys in real life is a little more problematic. Sometimes the good guys are highlighted by impressive but erroneous circumstantial evidence. Other times, the bad guys escape undetected because there is little evidence linking them to the scene. Unfortunately, unlike the movies, there is no sinister music in real life when the bad guy walks on the scene.

Last week, delineating between the good guys and bad became easier in real life thanks to the use of DNA technology and the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling upholding a 1997 law that established a DNA database of certain convicts and parolees within the Commonwealth.

The DNA collection law integrated the Massachusetts Police Crime Laboratory into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). With the new legislation, the Commonwealth joined the ranks of the 48 other states which require people convicted of any of 33 crimes, ranging from murder to kidnapping, as well as those released on parole or probation, to submit a blood sample to the authorities. The sample is then used to cross-match against forensic evidence in future and past unsolved cases.

With certainties as high as one in 2 billion, the precision of DNA cross-typing is remarkable! Courts and forensic officers are able to find the proverbial "needle in the haystack". Thanks to this technology, over a thousand unsolved crimes have been solved across the country because key evidence has been linked through DNA matches with individuals in the data base. The key to solving these cases is provided by the technology that the state will be afforded by being linked to the federal system. For instance, in Florida, officials have been able to match nearly 100 suspects to the crimes that never would have been targeted without the use of DNA testing. With additional access to the federal bank and the creation of its own data bank, Massachusetts will be well prepared to unravel unsolved cases as well as crack cases that would go unsolved without the high-tech crime fighting techniques that the DNA database offers.

In January 1998, shortly after the law went into affect, a group of state prisoners and parolees went to court to challenge the law, claiming it was unconstitutional to extract DNA samples without any specific warrant or probable cause. A Superior Court judge agreed, finding that the DNA collection procedure violated the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. In the nation's only successful legal challenge to DNA collection, that judge banned further testing of parolees and convicts, citing that the state had not issued necessary regulations governing the DNA program. Following the ruling of the Superior Court, Massachusetts was only allowed to sample a crime scene and scan its findings through the national database, but it could not submit its own DNA samples for matches.

Just last week, however, after a year of appeals, the Supreme Judicial Court overruled that judge's decision and reinstated the regulations and provisions of the DNA database law. In short, the state's highest court recognized the significant government interest and near full-proof reliability of DNA collection over the minimal intrusion of a pin prick. This decision will not only assist in prosecuting criminals and identifying possible suspects, but it affirms our commitment to remain tough on criminals.

Ironically, one of the most compelling components of DNA testing is that it not only helps to determine the culprit in a case, but testing can also help absolve a suspect of a crime. In 1997, for example, DNA evidence was used to exonerate a Boston man, Marvin Mitchell, after he spent eight years in prison for allegedly raping a 12 year old girl. The confirmation of his innocence through DNA technology reaffirms the value of using "genetic fingerprints" for all defendants and confirms its potential to prove a suspect's innocence as well as guilt. With the capacity to be so accurate in determining DNA matches, the state can rule out the innocent and concentrate on capturing the real bad guys.

Capturing the true culprit is what the DNA database is all about. By tying into the national network of DNA databases, people who commit crimes are more likely than ever to be brought to justice, while at the same time, those who are innocent, gain one more protection against wrongful accusations. Requiring offenders to give samples will also make them think twice about committing future crimes. While determining the good guys may not be as easy as looking at the color of their clothes, the DNA database will give us a foolproof method for making sure the bad guys do not ride out of town unscathed.

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