Hatch promotes rapid DNA bill as he tours Utah crime lab

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2017 05:49 pm

Legislation » Goal is speed processing to turn around test results in hours rather than days.

Taylorsville • As Sen. Orrin Hatch toured Utah's newest crime lab Thursday, he reacted to each room with much the same awe and intrigue.

The vault storing 1,200 guns and rifles? "That's impressive."

The shooting range with a plexiglass wall? "This is good. This is good for me to see."

The drug-analysis lab that tests evidence for traces of cocaine and marijuana? "Well that's interesting."

Hatch was perhaps the most enraptured, though, when the facility's forensic scientists discussed their efforts to speed up DNA processing — which has been a pet project for the senator over the past two legislative sessions.

"It's taken years, sometimes, to develop DNA. And that's ridiculous," he said. "We want to be able to get it down to where it takes us a few days."

The crime lab's current turnaround is about two months, though new robotic equipment and an influx of recently trained employees could bring that down to about 30 days, said Pilar Shortsleeve with the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services.

Hatch's "Rapid DNA" legislation, which has passed in the Senate and is pending in the House, looks to expedite that testing even further: 90 minutes or less, including comparing those results to the national database.

The bill would lift regulations on collecting DNA samples to allow police officers to conduct cheek swabs on individuals booked into jail and bypass using results only from accredited labs. That could mean more quickly linking suspects to unsolved crimes or exonerating innocent individuals, Hatch said while pitching the bill Thursday.

Some civil-rights groups have expressed concerns about the increasing practice of taking DNA samples from suspects before conviction and keeping results in an ever-expanding database. Stewart Gollan, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is concerned about the reliability of results that don't come from an accredited facility.

"Taking somebody's DNA is, in some sense, invasive," he said, hoping also that the bill wouldn't lower standards for probable cause.

Still, Hatch has the support of Elizabeth Smart, who accompanied him on the tour and has provided input on the bill. She hopes the quicker testing will return the focus to victims, who "get left in the dust" once a perpetrator is named.

"Anyone who kidnaps a child definitely deserves to be in prison," she said. "Anyone who sexually abuses a woman, a child, a man deserves to be in prison. And this will help that."

Smart was held captive for nine months in the Utah mountains. Her convicted kidnapper and rapist, Brian David Mitchell, and his wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, pulled the then-14-year-old Salt Lake City girl from her bed at knifepoint in June 2002.

She was rescued in March 2003 and since has become a child-safety activist.

On Thursday, Smart pushed a stroller around the crime lab with her two-year-old daughter, Chloe, and baby son. Hatch greeted the kids, cooing "Who's this?" and "How are you?"

Smart's father, Ed Smart, stood nearby and smiled; he believes faster DNA results are critical in "getting answers that families are looking for."

The group of about 25 staffers and administrators — including Utah's U.S. Attorney John Huber — slowly crept through the building, opened in early June, discussing bullet casings and fingerprint charts for more than an hour. Hatch, wearing a striped suit and black sneakers, shook hands with employees in white lab coats. When his voice faltered during one such introduction, the 83-year-old senator joked, "I'm afraid it's my age."

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