Richland County Coroner Questions South Carolina DNA Evidence Law

South Carolina passed a DNA preservation law two years ago to reduce the chance that evidence could be prematurely destroyed before a criminal defendant's legal appeals had been exhausted. But the strict wording of the law has caused Richland County's coroner to withhold cremation permits due to uncertainty, and he recently expressed worry that he may need to postpone burials.

The use of DNA in criminal investigations is a popular feature of television crime shows, and it has had a profound effect on criminal investigations involving murder, assault, sex crimes and other charges. Many states have also enacted policies to collect DNA from convicted criminals to compare evidence of future crimes against a growing database of personal genetic information.

But DNA evidence has also been used to exonerate convicted criminals long after they were locked away. In recognition of this possibility, some states have mandated that certain forensic evidence collected during a criminal investigation must be preserved to ensure that a defendant's due process rights are not violated. In South Carolina, the law applies to evidence collected in the investigation of over 20 criminal offenses.

But the Columbia coroner's strict interpretation of the statutory language recently caused him to deny a cremation permit to the son of a woman who was recently killed in a local hit and run, and he is concerned about the effect on survivors. "We're put in a position of telling them OK, not only has your mother, father, sister or brother died, but you're not going to be able to honor their last wishes for cremation," he told WIS-TV. He has sought an advisory opinion from the state Attorney General's office to clarify the matter.

Complex Evidence Requires a Clear Understanding of the Law

People tend to believe that DNA evidence offers iron clad proof of a person's criminal liability, but the truth is far more complex. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will closely examine the prosecution's conclusions to protect a client's interests.

Problems with collection, storage and testing of tissue, blood, hair and other samples can lead to erroneous allegations. Contrary evidence drawn from witness testimony, phone records and other sources can provide alternative theories to a rush to judgment about a person's presence in a certain place at a certain time. And genetic mismatches are possible depending on the quality and isolation of the sample.

By contacting an attorney as soon as possible after learning about an investigation, possible defendants can make full use of their legal options. Questionable evidence and strong proof that contradicts it can help a person avoid or reduce charges and protect their constitutional rights.

South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense LawyersSouth Carolina Association of Criminal Defense LawyersSouth Carolina BarSouth Carolina BarSouth Carolina Association for JusticeSouth Carolina Association for JusticeRichland County Bar AssociationRichland County Bar Association2015 Legal Elite of the Midlands2015 Legal Elite of the Midlands