Katie’s Law helps solve cold cases

Katie Sepich

Five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of collecting DNA from those who are arrested for committing serious crimes. In Maryland v. King, the Supreme Court issued one of the most consequential rulings in its history, allowing law enforcement to use a critically important tool that saves lives, prevents crimes and brings criminals – such as rapists and murderers – to justice.

Likened by the Supreme Court to a modern-day fingerprint, DNA collected from an arrestee is able to be compared against DNA taken from crime scenes across America. In New Mexico alone, felony arrestee DNA has been matched to more than 1,500 cold cases since 2007. And in Maryland v. King, Alonzo King’s DNA from an arrest in 2009 linked him to a rape from six years earlier, and his conviction for that rape was upheld.

New Mexico has been a leader in the national movement to expand the collection of DNA from arrestees. Katie’s Law, as our statute is known, was named in honor of Katie Sepich and was enacted in 2006. Katie was a New Mexico State University student who was raped, kidnapped, strangled to death, set on fire and abandoned in August of 2003. Skin and blood under her fingernails yielded DNA that was eventually linked to her murderer, whom I prosecuted as a district attorney in 2006. Katie’s killer had been arrested for a felony crime just two months after her death, but because New Mexico did not have a law allowing for DNA to be collected upon arrest, Katie’s murder went unsolved for nearly three years.

In 2011, shortly after I became governor, New Mexico enacted an expansion of Katie’s Law that requires all felony arrestees to have their DNA collected – not just those who had been convicted of violent felonies. As a result, the expansion of Katie’s Law has led to an increase of approximately 93 percent in the number of DNA matches to past criminal cases. In 21 instances, DNA taken from a felony arrestee – for expanded crime categories like auto theft, burglary and drug trafficking – was matched to an earlier unsolved homicide case. And 78 DNA samples from arrestees in expanded crime categories were matched to unsolved rapes and other sexual assault cases.

Katie’s parents, Dave and Jayann Sepich, have traveled all over the country advocating for DNA collection laws, and due in part to their work, more than 31 states now have a statute similar to New Mexico’s Katie’s Law on the books.

Success stories abound.

In Colorado, a successful real estate broker named William Costello was arrested for assault and his DNA matched to the rape of three teen-aged girls – one of whom was only 13 years old.

In California, a man was arrested for domestic violence, and his DNA matched to the 2004 murder case of a woman named Juanita Johnson.

And, in Florida, 26 years after the murder of her 11-year-old daughter, Jan Cornell’s prayers were answered when Joseph Zieler was arrested for felony aggravated battery and his DNA identified him as her daughter’s killer.

DNA collection has helped find and convict horrific criminals who, in the absence of these laws, would have been allowed to victimize countless others. At the same time, DNA collection has also helped exonerate the wrongly convicted.

Katie’s Law is working and Katie’s legacy lives on in the lives saved, suffering avoided, tragedies prevented and justice done. Her parents deserve our deepest gratitude for their 12-year-and-counting commitment to the expansion of DNA collection nationwide – often in the face of inexplicable resistance and even contempt in state capitals across America.

The Supreme Court’s ruling five years ago validated their heroic efforts, honored the memory of Katie and countless other crime victims, and sanctioned the use of important technology to keep our communities safe and ensure that justice is properly served.

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