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Committee urged to advance bill creating DNA collection program for felony arrests

Committee urged to advance bill creating DNA collection program for felony arrests

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Katie Sepich fought for her life after a man slipped through a window and into her Las Cruces, New Mexico, home in August 2003.

The DNA found under the 22-year-old grad student's fingernails after Sepich had been found raped, murdered and set on fire, would eventually match with the man who attacked her, Gabriel Adrian Avila.

But getting that match would take three more years, long after Avila had been sentenced to prison for aggravated burglary in 2004.

Since then, at the urging of Katie's parents, Jayann and Dave Sepich, more than 30 states have begun collecting DNA samples from individuals arrested for violent crimes.

On Thursday, Jayann Sepich testified in support of a bill (LB496) by Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann that would enact Katie's Law in Nebraska, telling the Judiciary Committee the collection of DNA would aid in the investigation of heinous crimes and exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

She shared with the committee a list of 20 serial numbers, similar to those that would go into a federal database where they could be cross-referenced with DNA samples collected from crime scenes.

Those non-identifying markers were worth more than a winning lottery ticket to victims of crimes and their families, Sepich said: "It's numbers like these that finally identified (Katie's) killer."

Hilkemann, who sponsored a previous version of the Katie's Law bill, told the committee how passionate he had become about the issue since the committee last heard the issue in 2016, calling it an approach to being "smart on crime."

LB496 would require law enforcement agencies to swab the cheeks of individuals arrested on suspicion of felony crimes like murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping and child enticement.

The DNA collected from the cheek swab would be sent to the Nebraska Crime Lab, where it would be processed, given an anonymized but unique set of serial numbers, and entered in the Combined DNA Index System, where it could be cross-referenced with samples gathered from crime scenes.

Sepich said by using just 20 markers out of the 3 billion available in human DNA, scientists had developed a system that would indicate a match with a high degree of certainty.

She also told the committee she was so confident that the serial numbers used to signify the markers were unable to identify an individual that she had no hesitation in sharing them publicly.

Hilkemann's bill also outlines how individuals could request their unique serial numbers be expunged from the federal database, as well as for the state crime lab to destroy their DNA sample if they were not charged with or convicted of a crime.

The ACLU of Nebraska, testifying in opposition to the bill, said Hilkemann's proposal duplicated several laws already in place and did not provide for the automatic expungement of records the way other states' do.

Nebraska already collects the DNA from any person convicted of a felony and provides an opportunity for those not convicted of a crime to submit a DNA sample, Spike Eickholt told the committee.

He also said LB496 "should not be marketed as an exoneration bill," as the Legislature has created a separate law that outlines that process and has been used successfully.

"Ultimately, what this comes down to is balancing individual freedom versus government intrusion," Eickholt said, "and we argue this bill goes too far."

The committee took no action Thursday, Day 38 of the 90-day session. While the Legislature will begin floor debate next week, members of the Judiciary Committee will continue to hear bills.

Hilkemann said he would work with lawmakers to address concerns and strengthen the bill, and he believes Katie's Law could help solve crimes and bring closure to victims and their families.

The case would go unsolved until 2003, when police learned he had been lured out of his apartment by a romantic partner with whom he worked and then killed by her boyfriend.

Over that time, Hilkemann said he watched his cousin continue to suffer by not knowing what had happened to his son.

"This gives law enforcement one more avenue to try and help stop, prevent, and determine who is the perpetrator of the crime," Hilkemann said.

THIS YEAR'S STATE SENATORS

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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