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One cleared, two charged after DNA testing

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

BALTIMORE -- ABC's "20/20" spent $8,750 on DNA tests in 50 "cold cases," yielding evidence that cleared one man of rape and led to charges against two others, police say.

The testing in the cold cases -- investigations in which the trail has gone cold -- began in August, with the ABC News program paying half the cost and the city picking up the rest.

Three months later, Baltimore authorities charged two men with violent crimes, including a 43-year-old man charged with two 1997 rapes. Police said evidence from the crimes matched the man's DNA profile in a Virginia database for convicted felons.

The tests also exonerated a man who was charged with rape last summer after the victim picked him out of a photo lineup, police said.

Police said they would have determined the man was innocent because they planned to test the DNA themselves. But the sample was included in the 50 sent to an outside laboratory for the "20/20" program, and charges were dropped in November.

The unusual arrangement between police and ABC is being used by city officials in their push for more money to expand DNA testing.

The news program, whose representatives did not immediately return a call Tuesday, plans to air the DNA testing story on Jan. 25.

An authority on media ethics said the arrangement raises concerns about journalistic independence.

"To join together financially and strategically on this investigation creates some tough ethical terrain," said Bob Steele, director of the journalism ethics program at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"News organizations operate on the principle of journalistic independence. They have an obligation to be watchdogs over law enforcement and government agencies," he said. "If a news organization is extensively collaborating with a law enforcement agency, it could erode that journalistic independence, not only in perception, but possibly in reality."

Baltimore police began operating their own DNA laboratory in July and hope to test more than 200 samples a year.

But police officials and Mayor Martin O'Malley want state lawmakers to spend $4 million to expand DNA testing statewide.

State law already requires Maryland to keep a DNA profile database for people convicted of murder, rape, assault and child abuse. O'Malley wants the law to cover all convicted felons.

State Sen. Walter Baker, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he supports the expansion but wants it to be done carefully.

"This General Assembly made kicking a dog a felony, so you've got to be careful what you're talking about," Baker said.

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