Coroner asks AG to clarify law on DNA evidence

By Jack Kuenzie - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Richland County Coroner Gary Watts says he has questions about a relatively new evidence law preventing him from issuing permits for cremation. Now the coroner is now looking for more guidance from the attorney general's office.

Coroners and law enforcement agencies have routinely held on to important evidence from criminal cases. There are boxes of bones and other evidentiary items stored at the Richland County Coroner's office, dating back decades.

But coroner Gary Watts was concerned the wording of the state's two-year-old DNA preservation law might force his and other agencies to keep just about anything containing DNA -- including human bodies. "It's a tremendous amount of potential evidence that would be required to keep and preserve," said Watts. "And according to the statute, you have to keep and preserve it for as long as the individual is incarcerated and or as long as there's a potential suspect."

As a precaution, Watts began withholding cremation permits and said he might have to do the same with burials.

South Carolina's DNA law, like those in other states, is an outgrowth of efforts to ensure criminal defendants have the evidence they need in their appeals. "The law is pretty simple," said Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch, who helped in those efforts. "The law says that in the collection of evidence in criminal cases that you are to preserve that evidence. Biological material and physical evidence."

On Tuesday, Watts and McCulloch posed new questions to the state attorney general's office. "This law was never intended and shouldn't have been interpreted to mean anything more than business as usual," said McCulloch. "But once you've collected that evidence, keep it. And keep it for the time periods required by the statute."

The coroner, with McCulloch's help, has submitted questions to the attorney general's office as part of a request for a new opinion on how agencies are supposed to comply with the law. One of those questions asks whether it's okay for the coroner to release remains or personal items as long as "reasonable and customary forensic techniques" are used to collect and preserve evidence.

A spokesman for the attorney general says a revised opinion will be issued by the end of the week.

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