Data bank expansion aims to save lives and prevent crime
The DNA data bank in Richmond is adding two additional misdemeanors requiring DNA collection because of a new law passed in the Virginia General Assembly — which was inspired by the deaths of Morgan Harrington and Hannah Graham.
Gil Harrington, Morgan's mother, has been working to increase DNA legislation, and she was one of the people who lobbied for this bill.
"If it had been in place in 2009, when Morgan went missing, it would have effectively stopped the criminality in its tracks, and she wouldn't have been killed," Harrington said, "Hannah Graham would still be alive."
Lobbyists asked for seven misdemeanors to be added originally — assault and battery, domestic assault and battery, trespassing, petty larceny, destruction of property, obstruction of justice and conceal merchandise.
The goal of adding these misdemeanors is to prevent crime, prosecute crimes, exonerate the innocent and reunite people with missing loved ones.
"DNA really is a tool that we can use," said Harrington.
The General Assembly said it only had the funding to add two misdemeanors — trespassing and assault and battery. Trespassing is what Jesse Matthews Jr., who killed Graham and Morgan Harrington, was charged with before he murdered Graham.
"You can't always be successful, but I do think we're making a change," Harrington said, "and we are slowing down some of these atrocious acts."
The expansion is for Virginia, but Brad Jenkins, the forensic biology program manager for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said all states can check the bank.
"If North Carolina has a case," Jenkins said, "and they have not found a match offender, they may hit to one of these additional misdemeanors here."
The bank averages about 24,000 samples every year prior to the additional offenses. Now the data bank is expecting an additional 4,600 samples coming in each year.
They hired one additional worker and do not expect the additional offenses to cause too much extra traffic in the lab.
Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding has lobbied for DNA legislation since the 1990s. He said a crime commission study shows that 70 percent of first-time felons had a previous misdemeanor conviction.
"It's incredible in what this has done for law enforcement in getting the right person," Harding said.
Harding works with law enforcement and with the Innocence Project, so he sees both sides of DNA.
"There's more work to be done, but I felt it was very gratifying," Harding said, "and I think the Grahams were very satisfied with that outcome."
Graham's picture was projected on the wall as Governor Northam signed the bill in June.
"These changes provide a better safety net for other potential victims," Harrington said, "and I think that is a tremendous legacy."
"I can't forecast what's going to happen 50 years from now," Harding said. "I can tell you if we don't pass this, many more women would be raped, murdered, abducted... that will happen."
Some who argue against the bill feel it is an invasion of privacy to collect DNA, but Harrington said it is not a full collection of a person's genetic material.
"They take a little snippet that tells them it's you," Harrington said, "so they don't have all of your genetic material, they just have an identifier."
All of the people who are working toward this bill have the same goal in mind.
"My big motivation is to help save the next girl," Harrington said.
Harrington runs a national non-profit organization called "Help Save the Next Girl" in honor of Morgan, and saving more lives. You can visit her website