Local felony sentences include collection of DNA sample
Anyone convicted of a felony in Morgan County and across the state of West Virginia stands to lose quite a lot — their right to vote, the right to own a firearm and potentially their freedom.
In recent years, the State Legislature has added a smaller item to that list. Upon conviction, felons must also hand over a tiny piece of themselves — a DNA sample.
The requirement for some felons to submit DNA to law enforcement, in order to build a central database of identifying records, has been around for years.
But County Prosecuting Attorney Debra McLaughlin said the practice has widened from those convicted of sexual offenses to practically all felons.
That includes offenders who have been found guilty or pled guilty to crimes such as drug trafficking, armed robbery, and also certain property crimes.
DNA samples are most often gathered when someone is taken into the state’s penitentiary system or a regional jail to serve a felony sentence.
Recently, Morgan County court and law enforcement officials have made sure they capture the samples from offenders serving a felony sentence on probation or home confinement as well.
Local samples sent to state
Probation Officer Danielle Hofe said she arranges new probation cases into a group and coordinates with the Sheriff’s Department to transport the group up to War Memorial Hospital’s lab once a month.
The hospital lab takes a blood sample from each, and samples are placed in prepaid mailers supplied by the West Virginia State Police. Sheriff’s deputies send the kits to forensic scientists at the State Police lab.
War Memorial provides the service to the county and the offenders for free, though a recent change in the state law will start charging offenders $150 for the test.
Better than a fingerprint
DNA — or deoxyribonucleic acid — is the hereditary material of an individual. It’s known as a definitive blueprint for nearly every cell in a person’s body. Even in the closest relatives, DNA is unique. That’s why most consider it to be the definitive mark of an individual.
While fingerprints used to be a nearly-indisputable identifier of an individual, McLaughlin points out that DNA is now the standard benchmark for personal identification in court cases.
In a letter accompanying the results of a local DNA sample used by McLaughlin’s office, a state forensic scientist outlines how unique a person’s DNA really is.
“The combination of genotypes identified from the above sample occur randomly in approximately one in 53.3 trillion unrelated individuals,” the report states.
Samples build up database
The DNA samples taken from Morgan County felons are accompanied by fingerprints as a way to cross-reference identity in CODIS (The FBI’s Combined DNA Index System) and the state DNA database.
Each new sample is not only added to the state and federal collection of other felon’s DNA, they are compared to unidentified DNA samples in unsolved cases.
That means DNA evidence collected from a crime scene in Texas could be identified, years afterwards, when a new DNA sample is entered into CODIS from a Morgan County offender.
While this storehouse of information can be used
to convict someone of crimes in other places, DNA evidence can also exonerate someone.
“I’ve had people cleared through DNA. People who we were suspicious of have been cleared using DNA testing,” said McLaughlin.
She knows that the idea of DNA collection makes some people uncomfortable, but said the larger benefits are worth a little discomfort.
If felons refuse to give a sample willingly, the court can order that it be taken as part of felony sentence.
“Once you’re a convicted felon, you lose some civil rights. DNA is nothing more than a fingerprint,” McLaughlin said.