The Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that if the state legally obtains DNA from a suspect, investigators can keep the DNA profile indefinitely, whether or not the suspect is found guilty.
The case involved a Cleveland man who was acquitted of a rape but later linked by DNA to a murder.
The Supreme Court’s ruling upholds the aggravated murder conviction of Dajuan Emerson. Emerson was accused of raping his girlfriend’s 7-year-old daughter in February 2005. A DNA profile was created for him and eventually entered in a state database. Seminal fluid was found on the girl, but it contained no identifiable DNA. Emerson was acquitted of the charge and did not seek to erase the profile.
In July 2007, Cleveland police were investigating the murder of Marnie Macon, 37, and found blood on a door handle that was not Macon’s. Macon’s had been stabbed 74 times in her head, neck and torso and her body had been sanitized from the waist down in an effort to destroy DNA evidence.
Police sent the blood to a DNA analyst, and in August 2008 a report from the state determined the DNA matched Emerson’s profile. Emerson, who was arrested on multiple charges including aggravated murder, tried unsuccessfully to suppress the DNA evidence under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. He was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Brian Moriarty, Emerson’s attorney, could not be reached for comment. In a court brief, he raised the issue of privacy, noting that law enforcement officials must file a search warrant before obtaining a DNA sample.
“There can be no question that one has a privacy interest in one’s own DNA,” the brief said.
Justice Robert R. Cupp, who wrote the court’s opinion, said a DNA profile is different from a DNA sample because it is a work product of the government. Therefore, suspects have no ownership or privacy right to their profiles.
Cupp also wrote that there is no legislative requirement for DNA profiles to be deleted.
Brian McDonough, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said that about 40 other states have issued similar decisions that support maintaining DNA records.
“This is the type of evidence that can convict someone, and at the same time, it’s the most powerful evidence that can prove somebody’s innocence,” he said. “We love DNA evidence, and we want to keep maintaining that in the database.”
Kate Irby is a fellow in Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.