Steve Cooley
Los Angeles County District Attorney

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, January 9, 2005
(Television interview conducted December 14, 2004)

Steve Cooley     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. The interview was conducted Dec. 14. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Your name wasn't on the ballot in November, but you scored a victory.

Cooley: Well, Proposition 69 passed, and that was the DNA all-felon database initiative. I call it the DNA fingerprint initiative. That won pretty handily. ... It established for California an all-convicted-felon DNA database so that we can, in the future, solve a lot more previously unsolved and cold cases and identify the worst sort of perpetrators at the earliest possible stage.

Signal: Doesn't California already have a DNA database?

Cooley: Yes they do, but it's not an all-convicted-felon database. It was limited to strictly a small number of violent offenses and sexual assault-type offenses. To the extent you expand your DNA database to include even nonviolent convicted felons, you're going to greatly increase the potential to solve some of these crimes.
    It has been proven mathematically, particularly in states like Virginia that have a cold-hit solve rate twice as high as California's, even though their population is only about one-seventh our size. If you have an all felon database, you will just mathematically, inevitably, predictably, solve more of these crimes.

Signal: Some critics objected to Proposition 69 because it allows police to take DNA samples from arrestees who haven't been proven guilty. Thirty-four states have an all-felon DNA database, but doesn't Proposition 69 go beyond that and give California an all-arrestee database?

Cooley: No. Because even though the proposal in 69 was that upon the arrest — and currently it's murderers and rapists — upon their arrests, a sample can be taken, it won't be until 2009 that the samples will be taken from all felony arrestees.
    But there's a very good reason for taking (them) at the time of arrest. One, you've got the person there; you can check their fingerprints, which are identifying characteristic and capability; you can get other information about the identification at the booking stage, coincident with the arrest. It's just a better way to do business, and it's very efficient.
    Now, if a person has not been previously convicted of a felony in their lifetime and they're not subsequently convicted for the felony for which they are arrested, they can move to have their DNA identification removed from the database. That's why they call it an all-convicted-felony DNA database, because they do have that mechanism.
    Taking a DNA sample is not as intrusive as it once was, where you had to do it by a blood sample. ... Now it's strictly taking something equivalent of a cotton swab and running it across someone's gum. It's that simple. It takes a very limited amount of time.
    It's not intrusive, and it doesn't produce any genetic information in the database. All it does is produce a digitized code that goes in the database for future comparison with the forensic sample recovered from a crime scene.

Signal: Who takes the DNA samples? Will sheriff and police stations be required to have medical people on staff?

Cooley: No. You don't need a qualified medical technician to administer this particular DNA sample taking. It can be done by a deputy sheriff, a jailer; any civilian could do it. It's just that simple a process.
    Before, to take DNA, you needed a qualified nurse who could take the blood sample. It had to be a licensed person. This is much more efficient nowadays. Passing 69 now is at a great time, because the science is well established; the techniques are much simpler; processing the samples received is much more efficient, much cheaper. So we're into this brave new world where all the pieces are coming together.

Signal: Aldous Huxley for the 21st Century. What exactly does DNA tell you?

Cooley: DNA, in its broadest possible application, could tell you lots of information including your predisposition toward certain medical conditions, I imagine. But that information is not available as a result of this DNA database. All that the end result is, is a digitized code that relates to a specific person for purposes of a future comparison.

Signal: Are fingerprints not good enough anymore to establish identity?

Cooley: Fingerprints are very good, but a lot of times, rapists don't leave a fingerprint at the scene of their rape-murder, but they do oftentimes leave their semen or blood, which is DNA-testable. So, this is another expansion of a very valid concept.
    Just like fingerprints. As you know, there's a national database for fingerprints now. Our office, working with the Sheriff's Department and the El Segundo PD, solved a 47-year-old double murder of two El Segundo police officers that occurred back in 1957. That person has been convicted, all because he left one fingerprint, and the government had put together a national database. This individual had been arrested in the early 50s. His fingerprints were uploaded into the system; a comparison was made because of one fingerprint — and it was a partial print — he was plucked out of the universe, and a case was made against him for executing two El Segundo police officers. I'm sure you remember the case.

Signal: That was tried and prosecuted not too long ago.

Cooley: Right. Well, it wasn't even prosecuted. The case was so strong, he flew into LAX, was driven to the courthouse downtown, and pled guilty and was sentenced to state prison all in the same day.

Signal: Wasn't that in the last year or so?

Cooley: Yeah, it was about a year ago. And I'm sure you've heard about a whole variety of cold cases being made by DNA — serial predators who had gotten away with murder over many, many years, and (they're) generally very brutal murderers, oftentimes sexual assault-motivated murderers. They're being brought to justice.
    Even though our DNA database is not as complete as it will be, we are getting some of the convicted felons tested now, and guess what? We're finding out that Chester Turner killed 12 women in Los Angeles, strangled them to death during the course of sexually assaulting them. Ivan Hill — they call him the I-60 freeway slayer — they plucked him out. He was in prison, finally got tested, and he had raped and strangled — murdered — eight women.
    We're seeing more and more of this. It has become more and more common. And we'd like to make it very, very common so we can solve a lot of old, cold cases, and most importantly prevent victimization from ever occurring.

Signal: These people were plucked out as a result of DNA evidence?

Cooley: They committed an offense that — even our current law allowed the sample to be taken — they were in prison, their sample was taken, and as soon as their sample hit the system — LAPD is working these cases in terms of Turner; Sheriff's (Department) in the case of Ivan Hill — they said, "Let's take that old forensic evidence from these cases, and let's have it DNA-analyzed and compare it against the database."

Signal: How old and cold were those cases?

Cooley: Ivan Hill's cases were about seven, eight, nine years ago, over a period of two or three years. There was a certain period of time where the offenses weren't occurring; that's when he was in prison. And Mr. Turner, his occurred starting maybe 10 (to) 12 years ago, and occurred over a several-year period.

Signal: How long have LAPD and sheriff's deputies been collecting evidence from crime scenes for its DNA?

Cooley: Rape kits, which would include, oftentimes, getting forensic samples that could be DNA testable, have been collected for many, many, many years. You have to remember that historically, even without this capability, law enforcement couldn't — sometimes a hair sample might give a clue to who the assailant was, based upon some future comparison. Blood samples that might arise — that could be done through other sorts of scientific techniques. But DNA has provided a whole new dimension for us to solve crimes and prevent crimes in the future. That's the essence of it.
    To give you one more example, Mark Rathbun, the Belmont Shore rapist. We convicted him, in our office, a couple months ago. Thirteen sexual assaults, rapes of women in their home. We only filed the cases where we had DNA. But we knew he had raped 40 (to) 50 other women in mostly Los Angeles County, (the) Long Beach area, and some in Orange county. He was a convicted felon. He was a convicted felon before his rape spree over five years took place.

Photo Illustration
[Click for Photo Illustration by Bryan Kneiding]
    Again, we started out feeling that we had to be very conservative; we were going for a number of about 80-percent-of-the-time reliability. But we didn't take into account the fact that we have interties for areas that are on state water.
    If we had Proposition 69 five, six, seven years ago, he would have been detected after the first rape. Thirty-nine or 49 women would not have been sexually assaulted because we would have identified Mark Rathbun.
    So, it's the ultimate in crime prevention. It's a great tool. I applaud the public for voting for it. They understand its value to protect them. I just think it's going to be just terrific.
    Our job now is to make sure that we collect up all the previous convicted felons and make sure their samples are taken (and) we get them in the system so we can make it work to the optimum.

Signal: Have the state prisons started going back and collecting DNA from prisoners who are in custody?

Cooley: Yes. They're coming up with their implementation techniques. They're already collecting it from the categories of convicted felons — the violent (crimes) that were listed in the penal code. Now they'll just expand their program to collect it from virtually everyone that's in prison because they're all convicted felons.
    The trickier part will be in places like Los Angeles County where we convict someone of a felony, but they get probation or they go to county jail as a condition of probation. We're going to have to have collection sites in various areas including the courts, various police stations, juvenile hall facilities, so we can pick up the previously convicted felons who we know have a prior criminal history that qualifies them, and the new felons who don't otherwise go to state prison.

Signal: You'll be collecting DNA from felons currently on parole and probation?

Cooley: Yes. So we need the cooperation of the courts, probation, law enforcement, and certainly our office will play a role in it, the Department of Corrections; it's going to be a very coordinated effort where everyone knows their respective role in the process so we can build our database from its current size of about 240,000 (to), we anticipate within several years it'll be a million.

Signal: Which juveniles, before or after 2009, will be tested?

Cooley: I think it's the juveniles who have been adjudicated guilty of having committed a felony. You know, in a juvenile court, we call it "adjudicated," a different verb, but in order for the court to take jurisdiction over the minor and fashion the appropriate remedial rehabilitative sentence, it requires that they be adjudicated guilty of a felony offense.

Signal: So, not juvenile arrestees?

Cooley: No. There are certain — a limited number of registerable sex-offense misdemeanors that may provide a basis to take someone's DNA for purposes of the database.

Signal: You mentioned the national fingerprint database. How long has it been around?

Cooley: It's been growing over the years; I think about 1999 was when it first came together. Over the last several years, various states have come into the system and taken their historical fingerprint records going back 50 years and digitizing it and putting it in a method or manner they can uplift it to the national database.
    That's what happened with this individual that killed the two police officers. It was just a few months before he was identified that that case was reopened, a cold case, and one of the deputy DAs and the sheriff's investigator said, "Hey, we've got a fingerprint here. Let's try to date this." His fingerprints from 1952, I think it was, had been uplifted as part of the entire state of South Carolina's, and out it popped. That was Gerald Mason. Then we built a case around that. Tracked him to the gun and everything else. It worked out very nicely.

Signal: Is there a comparable national database for DNA?

Cooley: Yes, there is. It's called the CODIS system (Combined DNA Index System), and we're part of it here in California. If you meet certain criteria established by the federal government, you can participate in the CODIS system by uplifting your data that's been tested, to the national database.
    As a matter of fact, Mark Rathbun, the Belmont Shore rapist, he was in CODIS. He had raped a woman up in Washington state previously. Of course, we gave him, like, a kazillion years here in state prison; I'm sure Washington's not going to prosecute him. But it shows you the power of computer technology when it comes in combination with some of these extant sciences like fingerprints, DNA, etc.

Signal: Is there an international equivalent?

Cooley: I'm not so sure there is, but it certainly could be the subject of a treaty. I've not really thought about that.
    In some countries, they're way ahead of us. England, for example, has a very large DNA database of their population and much more liberal rules for actually collecting it for investigative purposes. So, I would imagine that's certainly doable, on the basis of international treaties like we do (with) extradition and other issues. Say, "Look, we'll share our DNA with maybe you guys, if you have some showing — some cause to be believe — it might lead the apprehension of a suspect."

Signal: Is everybody's DNA absolutely unique? What's the probability of duplication?

Cooley: It's in the billions, unless you're identical twins. Identical twins, I've been informed, can have the same DNA codes at the end of the day, given current science.

Signal: Proposition 69 proponents made the point during the campaign that DNA evidence could be used to exonerate the innocent. Do you know of specific instances?

Cooley: That's a very valid point. We've had some of those cases in Los Angeles County, and you read about them occasionally in the newspapers, both statewide and nationally. There have been people exonerated, proven to be innocent of the charges for which they were convicted, by DNA.
    And that's the other benefit. We're not in the business of prosecuting people incorrectly. We want to get the right person. And if DNA helps exonerate someone, so be it. That's good. That's the other real advantage of this entire science that we have to invest in and work with and maximize for the benefit of the public we serve.

Signal: If DNA itself is infallible, it still takes a bureaucratic system to manage it.

Cooley: That's correct.

Signal: There have been cases in Nevada and Texas where DNA samples have gotten mixed up or mis-analyzed, and people went to prison who shouldn't have. What guarantees are there that we can depend on people operating the system?

Cooley: You need to have labs that are scrutinized by licensing-type agencies or entities, oversight entities that are independent of that particular lab; make sure certain standards are being maintained; you need internal controls.
    You're right. Anytime you have human beings involved in a process, something can go awry — either through negligence, incompetence, or intentionally. And so, you have to have systems that assure the integrity of the process. I think that by and large, those are in place, and we should always be working toward that goal. Because we want, at the end of the day, to be 100-percent reliant upon this science and what it can do.

Signal: Proposition 69 passed 62-38 statewide, 58-42 in Los Angeles County. It won everywhere but San Francisco and Humboldt counties. Of the 38 percent who opposed it, do you think some voters were leery of DNA evidence after the O.J. Simpson trial?

Cooley: No. I think the O.J. Simpson trial, which was 11 (or) 12 years ago, probably exposed the public — at least the common sense-minded public — to the potential of DNA, maybe for the first time.
    That trial was so widely watched, and it was televised, the public got a real "shock education" quickly to DNA and its potential. And that were back when things were a little more antiquated than they are now, less sophisticated, but they got exposed to it.
    Since then, they're out there looking at "Miami CSI" and all the rest of these "CSI" shows and detectives and "Unsolved Mysteries" and they're seeing DNA and these sorts of techniques being used rather commonly. So the public, because they're TV viewing, and some are reading, know that this works. That's why the public voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 69.
    I want to give credit to a gentleman by the name of Bruce Harrington. It was his idea to expand the database. His brother and sister-in-law were brutally murdered in Orange County, the Monarch Bay area, by an intruder, a rapist. DNA had established over several years that that killer of his brother and sister-in-law had killed 10 other people up and down the coast in Southern California. He had raped dozens of others. We know this because of DNA. He is undetected. That person hopefully will get caught up in this larger DNA database and finally be detected and brought to justice.

Signal: For all you, know he could be in prison right now.

Cooley: He could be in prison, but in prison on a particular felony that doesn't require testing. He could be in prison in some other state that doesn't require the testing. We're just hopeful that in that particular case, it gets solved, but we're also very confident that there's going to be hundreds upon hundreds of these kinds of cases getting solved.

Signal: It has become popular for people to fingerprint their kids through the Kid Print program so their information is on file if they're abducted or they go missing. Do you see Kid-DNA on the horizon?

Cooley: I think it has an application in that area, and probably in many others, too. We have something that's relatively infallible that could be reliable and scientifically established. You can have many, many applications — not just crime solving, but it could be for identification purposes.
    I wouldn't mind my children having a sample of DNA secured away someplace, just in the eventuality they disappeared and you need that for some future reference like dental records or such evidence that helps establish identity.

Signal: Another crime measure on the November ballot was Proposition 66, which would have weakened three strikes. If it weren't for some last-minute funding, it would have passed —

Cooley: If it weren't for Gov. Schwarzenegger and Dr. Henry Nicholas, who threw $2 million or $3 million into the fight against Proposition 66, 66 would have passed. And I guarantee you, the public in Los Angeles County, California, would have been immediately greatly endangered. We estimated 14,000 to 18,000 individuals within a year would have been released in the streets of L.A. County because of 66.

Signal: The three strikes law has been politically untouchable in Sacramento since the voters approved it in 1994. But almost half of the voters said yes to 66 in November. Do you believe there's a sentiment that something is wrong with three strikes, and do you think the Legislature will be willing to address it now?

Cooley: I think after 10 years' experience with the three strikes law, reasonable people see room for improvement.
    I'm one of those people. I've been working on some legislative ideas which we'd want to propose, which will make the three strikes law even better. I hope to work with Gov. Schwarzenegger and others in the Legislature and outside the Legislature to make an improvement in the three strikes law in certain ways.
    So, I think, you're exactly right: There will be some changes. Whether the Legislature has the gumption, whether enough of them have the gumption, to make the change, we'll see.

Signal: What would you do tomorrow to make sure people who don't belong in prison aren't locked up?

Cooley: Many of the nonviolent, non-serious felonies — even if they had prior qualifying offenses — should not be getting 25 to life for certain offenses. Petty theft with a prior, simple possession of drugs, forgeries, and a whole array of other offenses that are not violent and not serious, by and large should not be used to put someone in prison from 25 to life.
    Now, there are some felonies besides the violent ones and the serious ones that maybe should be used for 25 to life, and that's someone who uses a gun, or possesses a gun in the course of a crime, any crime. Anyone who inflicts injury with a deadly weapon during a course of a crime. A major drug trafficker. And anyone convicted of a felony sexual offense. You may want to consider that group of people as, in some cases, eligible for doing 25 to life, because there is some reason that they present a threat to the rest of us.

Signal: Then you would categorically remove certain crimes from the list of three-strikes eligible?

Cooley: Yes. Certain nonviolent, non-serious offenses should probably not come within the purview of the 25-to-life sentence.

Signal: Do you think enough people in Sacramento are willing to tackle it now?

Cooley: We'll find that out in this next legislative session, but they're certainly going to have an opportunity to vote yes or no on a reasonable proposal that we're coming up with here in L.A. County.

Signal: You will be sponsoring legislation?

Cooley: Yes.

Signal: In Sacramento?

Cooley: Yes.

Signal: Do you want to tell us any more about it?

Cooley: Not quite. When I come back. Next visit. I'll give you all the details.

Signal: Are you planning any other bold moves this year?

Cooley: We're going to keep up our good work in our L.A. County DA's office. I was just sworn in ... for a second term. The office is doing very, very well. I look forward to continuing on, in the whole area of public-integrity investigations, corruption cases, and — other bold moves? No, we're just going to do our jobs like good lawyers, good prosecutors, and keep our good working relationship with front-line law enforcement and hopefully do a good job serving the public that we're sworn to serve.

Signal: Would it be too out of line to say that legislatively this year, your focus is on three strikes reform?

Cooley: That's a No. 1 priority. The other one is bail reform. There are some serious problems with the bail industry in California. There are some companies — not all, by any stretch of the imagination — but some engage in predatory and corrupt business practices. We've already indicted some of them. We're going to indict some more of them, I guarantee you that.
    And we're going to once again sponsor legislation that builds an accountability for the assurers, so that they'll actually be paying, in a reasonable time, the forfeited bonds that occur in court when someone doesn't appear in court. That system needs some reform, and we have some experience here with its failures, and we have some solutions that we're going to be proposing.

Signal: You were elected district attorney in 2000 and reelected in 2004. In 2006, Bill Lockyer will be out of a job as attorney general. Will we see Steve Cooley campaigning for attorney general in 06?

Cooley: I'm going to make that decision in 05. I've been asked to consider it. Next time I come back, you can ask me. Maybe I'll have an answer.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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