In 1997, William Harbour was arrested for felony drug crimes. He served prison time, and his DNA was entered into the state’s database. On Tuesday it was that DNA sample that led investigators to connect him to the murders of 12-year-old Valerie Lane and 13-year-old Doloris Derryberry in Olivehurst some 43 years ago.
But if Harbour were arrested for the same drug crime in California today, his DNA never would have been collected.
According to Christine Ward with the Crime Victims Action Alliance, the state’s criminal DNA database is beginning to dwindle because of Proposition 47, making it potentially more difficult for investigators across California to solve cold cases.
“Unfortunately, we’re missing out on a whole population of individuals who, prior to prop 47, were required to give the swabs,” said Ward, who is Executive Director of CVAA.
Since Prop 47 went into effect in 2015, eight specific drug and property crimes that were felonies are now considered misdemeanors. Those who commit these crimes no longer have to submit DNA to the state, which Ward says is a problem.
“These are individuals who we will never know if they have been involved in other crimes,” said Ward.
In Prop 47’s first year, felony narcotics arrests dropped from more than 36,476 to 11,596, according to data from the FBI. Arrests involving dangerous drugs went from 85,931 to just 22,712.
Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove estimates about 250,000 would-be DNA samples were never collected in 2015, potentially making it harder for investigators to connect criminals to serious crimes.
“It’s frustrating on my part coming from 30 years in law enforcement seeing it firsthand how it works,” Cooper said. “And then you have folks that really just threw away the science and decided they didn’t like DNA so they’re not going to deal with it.”
Cooper says there’s a middle ground. He introduced a bill that would allow law enforcement to collect DNA from those not just arrested, but convicted of misdemeanors.
The bill, however, failed in the state senate.
Cooper says he’ll reintroduce his idea in the next legislative session, hoping those who vote keep cold case families in mind.
Ward says to risk losing evidence that could provide justice for victims’ families is unjust in itself.
“It’s torture. Just pure torture. And there are so many families out there that are having to wonder what happened, who did this,” said Ward.