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Frank Gray

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Maggie Zingman has traveled the country since her daughter’s murder to advocate DNA testing of all felony suspects.

Grief for slain child sparks cause

– Maggie Zingman is a psychologist who lives in Tulsa, Okla., and every six months or so she gets into her Toyota RAV4 with 300,000 miles on it and heads out for any part of the country where she thinks a killer might try to hide.

When she comes to a town, people know it. Her entire SUV is coated in a vinyl sign with the slogan “Caravan to Catch a Killer” and pictures of her daughter, Brittany Phillips, who was raped and murdered in Tulsa six years ago.

Thursday night, Zingman rolled into Fort Wayne, and Friday morning she made a cold call at the Fort Wayne Police Department.

No, Zingman doesn’t think her daughter’s killer is here, though one never knows. Actually, she’s resigned to the fact her daughter’s killer might never be found.

Instead, she’s campaigning for states to pass laws that allow police to take DNA samples from people who are arrested for crimes and for those DNA samples to be entered into a national database.

Whoever killed Zingman’s daughter left behind plenty of DNA evidence, but it hasn’t helped police solve the case. Police have tested every male who knew her, every friend, every acquaintance, every person who crossed her path. In all, the DNA of 2,000 people has been compared with the DNA her daughter’s attacker left behind, and none has matched.

Somewhere out there, though, is someone whose DNA matches. And he’s probably committed other crimes, possibly in other parts of the country.

Just think, Zingman said, if every person arrested for a crime had to give a DNA sample, and if all those samples could be entered into a national database, how many crimes could be solved? How many criminals would be caught earlier in their careers? How many people who have committed serious crimes could get tripped up when they were arrested for something minor later on?

Less than half the states routinely take DNA samples of people accused of crimes, and if those people are acquitted, the DNA samples are often discarded, she said.

Zingman knows she’s fighting an uphill battle. Plenty of people are opposed to Zingman’s idea. They view routine taking of DNA samples as an invasion of privacy.

As one lab expert put it, what if a 15-year-old is arrested for stealing a candy bar? Should he end up in a DNA database designed to catch rapists and killers?

Then there’s the cost. Even states that do take DNA samples from crime suspects have found their programs underfunded and undermanned, and the backlog of DNA samples that haven’t been processed can be measured in years.

Friday morning, when Zingman stopped by police headquarters in Fort Wayne, she got a pleasant reception. A secretary came down and took some brochures to distribute to detectives. Then she said she’d try to find someone for Zingman to talk to. Public information officer Raquel Foster came down and talked to Zingman for about 45 minutes.

Zingman, despite her compelling story, didn’t appear to turn Foster into an advocate in her fight to get laws passed permitting taking DNA samples from people simply charged with crimes.

It also became clear that policies concerning DNA sampling are fuzzy. Foster wasn’t sure how DNA samples are handled or what happens to them.

The county prosecutor’s office wasn’t sure either and referred me to the sheriff, who in turn referred me to the Indiana State Police crime lab.

In Indiana, DNA evidence recovered from a crime scene is sent to the state police, who analyze it and submit it to a national database, looking for matches. If a person is convicted of a felony, the Department of Correction takes DNA samples and submits them to a database called CODIS. But if a person is simply charged with a crime, DNA samples are used only for prosecution.

Linda McDonald, a DNA analyst with the state police post in Fort Wayne, knows what Zingman is talking about. Some states do sample everyone charged with a crime, but not Indiana.

“It has been proposed,” McDonald said, but it failed. The proposal probably will come up again.

Zingman believes anyone arrested for anything should have to give a sample, but she knows that’s unrealistic and will settle for sampling only felons.

To her, though, the first hurdle is getting people to talk about it and think about it.

Frank Gray has held positions as reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982 and has been writing a column on local topics since 1998. His column is published on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by e-mail at fgray@jg.net.

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