Crime panel debates DNA, police chases, man-made weed

By Andy Jenks - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Your own family members could be the final genetic link needed to solve a crime. That's one of several hot-button issues facing Virginia's top crime panel. Advocates are urging the Virginia State Crime Commission to toughen up on DNA testing, police chases, even man-made marijuana.

Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington was murdered almost 13 months ago, and to this day there's been no sign of her killer. So, Morgan's father came to the Capitol.

"Although nothing we can do can ever bring back our daughter, with luck and science we hope that the people who killed our daughter will be brought to justice," said Dr. Dan Harrington.

The science is known as familial DNA testing. The luck is whether it ever works.

Currently, police take DNA from a crime scene and, in the search for a perpetrator, they look at their database for exact matches. Familial DNA offers partial matches from a relative who just happens to be in the system for unrelated crimes. In theory, police then find the relative who may help locate the suspect.

"Obviously the hit rate on that is not huge, but it's one more tool for them [police]," Harrington said.

The technique is already used in California and Colorado.

"Familial searching can help you save time, help you save money, and help you save future victims," said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, who argued in favor of familial DNA testing.

Lawmakers on the panel were told they don't need to re-write Virginia law. Instead, they must only find a way to pay for the testing, estimated to be about $165,000 a year.

Separately, in the wake of a UVA lacrosse player's death, the commission is working to improve protective orders, giving authorities more power to keep a known abuser away from a victim.

The panel also considered a ban on synthetic marijuana, making it a possible felony to possess what's known as "Spice" or "K2".

Earlier, the commission debated the safety of police pursuits, even though one lawmaker was not happy, with the pace of progress.

"We're moving too slow," said Sen. Henry Marsh, a member of the crime commission.

In March, a Richmond pastor was inadvertently killed during a police chase. Ever since, the commission has been devising improvements including a universal police chase policy covering all law enforcement levels.

"I think what's been proposed in this first proposal, comes as close as anything I've seen," said Col. Gerald Massengill, a member of the crime commission.

The crime commission's job is to make policy recommendations to the General Assembly. Decisions will likely be made public in early December.

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