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Virginia Crime Commission studying expansion of DNA database

Expansion could mean police collect DNA for more misdemeanor crimes

The Virginia Crime Commission will study other states to determine whether to expand the DNA database to include those convicted of a class one misdemeanor.

It's a move  that's sparking the debate over safety vs. privacy. On one side, Gil Harrington, whose daughter was killed in 2009 by a man she believes would have already been in jail had this database expansion been in place. On the other, organizations like the ACLU, that see this move as an infringement of our rights.

Morgan Harrington and Hannah Graham. Two students both killed by convicted murderer Jesse Matthew. Morgan's mother Gil says, in the argument over DNA database expansion, that's all the evidence she needs.

"It's not an abstract for us. It would have definitely saved Morgan's life and Hannah Graham's life. Well I can't walk away from that," said Harrington.

Matthew was also convicted of a rape in Fairfax County in 2005. Police had that DNA for years without knowing whose it was. Then, just weeks before abducting Morgan, Matthew committed a misdemeanor assault. Had police taken his DNA, they could have connected him to the previous rape and locked him up. Harrington says, it's not too much to ask.

"I know that the labs are pretty busy with DNA collection that they have now, but if it will solve crimes and save lives, then we need to gear up the lab support for this legislation," said Harrington.

But in a visit to Roanoke County Wednesday evening, the Virginia ACLU Director, Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, said not so fast.

"Expanding it to a large group of misdemeanors really expands the pool of citizens whose most private, biological substance and most private information is now being captured and maintained in the state database, and we just think that's wrong," said Gastanaga.

She says, people need to consider how many more people would suddenly be put in the system.

"You can be a Class 1 misdemeanant for many different things that are pretty minor. Trespass, passing a school bus while it's stopped is a Class 1 misdemeanor," said Gastanaga.

She's concerned about the previous expansion of the database that's already taken place.

"We now have people in the database who have never been convicted of anything, because we collect DNA from everyone who's charged with a felony," said Gastanaga.

But Harrington says, she has studied the success of the expansion of databases in other states like New York. She says, it's worth whatever privacy people forgo.

"What we're all trying to do is find the truth and keep people safer here in Virginia," said Harrington.

Right now, police only collect and save DNA evidence from people charged with a felony or people convicted of 14 specific misdemeanors. This study proposes expanding that to include convictions like petty larceny and assault.