Mississippi task force expands DNA collections

Published 4:36 pm Friday, August 22, 2008

The first meeting of Attorney General Jim Hood’s crime lab task force has yielded a change: DNA soon will be collected from convicts on probation.

The idea was proposed early during Thursday’s meeting, and by the afternoon it was a done deal.

Mississippi collects DNA samples from felons when they enter the prison system. It isn’t done for prisoners in county jails or those on probation.

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“If we’re going to do it, let’s do it for everybody,” said Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, whose employees collect samples when inmates are processed.

About 23,000 inmates are in prison and 28,000 are on probation.

Epps suggested that some of his agency’s probation officers could be trained in DNA collecting and new hires wouldn’t be needed. State Crime Lab Director Sam Howell said his agency would train probation officers but couldn’t say how soon the change would come or how much it would cost.

“I expect we will meet with MDOC to talk about this very soon,” Howell said.

Hood created the panel to study the finances of the state’s Crime Lab, a division of the state Department of Public Safety that has offices in Jackson, Batesville, Meridian and Gulfport. The group will make recommendations to the Legislature.

The state’s handling of investigations involving DNA came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after two Noxubee County men who had spent several years in prison on murder charges were freed, in part, because of DNA evidence. One, Kennedy Brewer, had been on death row.

Many officials say the lab has been underfunded for years and it has been without a state medical examiner for more than a decade.

Efforts to make changes have picked up momentum in recent months. The 2008 Legislature provided money to hire an examiner and created a task force to make recommendations about uniform procedures for collecting and testing prisoners’ DNA.

Hood, whose group also is examining DNA procedures, said expanding the scope of collections could be useful in solving cases, particularly rape.

Hood’s task force of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and prison officials toured the Jackson lab on Thursday. They found cramped quarters and a leaky hole in the ceiling.

“These are the type of things we want to tell the Legislature about,” Hood said, adding that the lab should be expanded. He also said the lab needs enough money to start performing handwriting and fiber analyses.

The lab’s current budget is $9.3 million, including the state medical examiner’s office. Just more than $2 million comes from special funds that include federal grants.

Hood plans to ask the Legislature to increase the budget to about $16 million.

Increasing fees on some tickets or assessments on convicted felons are among the proposals lawmakers may be asked to consider when the session convenes in January.