DNA legislation that could be used one day to identify the killer of college student Johnia Berry passed unanimously in the Tennessee House on Wednesday and now awaits Gov. Phil Bredesen's signature.
"We expect he will sign it quickly," House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol told House lawmakers of Bredesen's anticipated signing of the "Johnia Berry Act of 2007."
The bill calls for DNA samples to be taken from persons booked for "violent felonies" including murders, assaults, rapes and even robbery after Jan. 1.
Besides Mumpower, the bill had another powerful Northeast Tennessee Republican sponsor: Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville.
Berry's parents, Joan and Mike Berry, were present on the House floor for the vote. The bill also designated the Knoxville office of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to be known as the "Johnia Berry Field Office."
Berry, formerly of Bristol, was an East Tennessee State University graduate who moved to Knoxville to enter a master's degree program at the University of Tennessee. On Dec. 6, 2004, someone entered her apartment and brutally stabbed her to death. Her killer is still at large.
To be caught, Berry's killer would have to get arrested for another violent crime after the bill becomes law.
"We do know he left a little bit of himself behind in the form of a DNA sample," Mumpower said of her killer. "We want to establish the first DNA database for people when they are arrested for certain violent felonies using a mouth swab. Upon conviction, that sample will be entered in a statewide DNA database. It will be the fingerprint of the future."
If the charge that was the basis for the sample being taken is dismissed or the defendant is acquitted, the TBI would destroy the sample and all other records, according to the bill.
Under legislation pushed by Ramsey and approved last year by the legislature, the TBI received six new positions to reduce an existing backlog in DNA analysis.
All 50 states currently require that convicted sex offenders provide a DNA sample, and states are increasingly expanding these policies to include all felons or many serious felony offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
To date, 44 states require that all convicted felons provide a DNA sample to the state's database. Seven states, including Virginia, also now have laws authorizing DNA sampling of arrestees. DNA databases in all states today are connected to the National DNA Index System, which is run by the FBI for federal and state information sharing.
Under current Tennessee law, anyone convicted of a felony committed on or after July 1, 1998, must provide a DNA sample to authorities.
Ramsey told House lawmakers that the DNA bill was one of only a few bills he is sponsoring this year.
"A lot of times when we are down here we pass bills that don't really make a difference," he said. "This bill will make a difference. It will help convict people across the state and prove people's innocence across the state. It is truly landmark legislation."
State Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, also got to speak and told House members that Johnia Berry's middle name was "Hope."
"(Mike and Joan Berry) talked about how much she liked to help people. ... In this way, she continues to do that," Lundberg said.
Another House member who spoke was state Rep. Nathan Vaughn, D-Kingsport. He told lawmakers that "a new birth" happens after tragedies.
"This will make our state a whole lot safer for the Johnia Berrys of tomorrow," Vaughn said.
For more information go to www.johniaberry.org.
For more about the Ramsey-Mumpower DNA legislation go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." The bill's number is SB 1196.