DNA Testing Advances in Legislature

Jan. 19, 2022, 6:30 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal to require DNA samples from people charged with crimes -- before they’re convicted -- narrowly advanced in the Legislature Wednesday, amid discussion of whether senators have lost their ability to compromise.

At issue was Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann’s bill to require DNA tests of people when they’re charged with crimes, instead of if they’re convicted, as under current law. Supporters say that will help clear up cold cases of earlier crimes, like rape, that someone newly arrested may have committed in the past. Opponents say it’s government overreach, and will disproportionately affect minorities. Sen. Justin Wayne suggested everyone should oppose the bill.

“If you are a Democrat and you are a liberal, you are a progressive, you know that this is unfairly going to target low income black and brown (people). The disparity is going to exist. If you are a conservative, do your really want your DNA to be entrusted with the federal government?” Wayne said.

But Sen. Anna Wishart saw virtue in arguments for and against the proposal.

“When I look at this bill, I see an opportunity to ensure that serial rapists are found. And in that case women, and in particular young women, are safer. And that weighs heavy on me. But the reality is that in listening to Sen. Wayne, in particular, this bill will disproportionately impact his constituents,” Wishart said.

Wayne said he believes the Legislature shows favoritism to certain popular senators by promoting their bills from select file – the second of three rounds of voting -- even when they are unlikely to become law.

“Here’s what I would really say to all you who like Sen. Hilkemann. Give him a fast death. Don’t be there on select (file), and then we get to final reading, not be there, and he gets his hopes up, and we’re on final reading and then the bill dies,” he said.

But Wishart said that kind of accommodation can help bring about compromise, which she said was more common when she started as a legislative aide 13 years ago.

“I’ve been working here since I was 24 years old, and let me tell you, this body used to work a lot differently. A lot differently. We are getting into a rut of just saying ‘no’ like a ping pong ball across the room. No, no, no, no, not your bill, then your bill’s going down. All of us come here with some good ideas to work on. And I think it’s on all of us to allow each other to be heard,” she said.

Shortly after noon, lawmakers voted on cloture – cutting off debate to vote on the bill itself. That requires a 2/3 vote – 33 votes in the 49-member Legislature. With the tally stuck at 31, two senators who had not supported cloture – Sens. Rob Clements and Patty Pansing Brooks, changed to supporting it.

The bill itself then got second-round approval on a vote of 26-15, with neither Clements nor Pansing Brooks voting for it.

Clements later said the libertarian in him doesn’t want the government taking DNA for the wrong reasons, but he supports the law enforcement part of the bill and wants to give Hilkeman more time to compromise with opponents.

Pansing Brooks said her vote was part of what she called the “beautiful” Unicameral process. She applauded Hilkemann for taking juveniles out of the bill, but said she’d oppose both cloture and the bill itself on final reading, if it remains in its current form.

Wednesday afternoon, the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on a bill by Sen. Julie Slama to prohibit Nebraska from contracting with companies that are participating in a boycott against Israel. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement say they’re protesting against Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians. Opponents say the movement is anti-semitic and against Israel itself.

Among those supporting Slama’s proposal was Boris Zilberman, representing the Christians United for Israel Action Fund.

“Jews, whether they be here in the United States or in Israel, are increasingly under attack. These attacks don’t always come in the form of rockets, guns or fists, but through economic attacks in an attempt to destroy what the former hasn’t,” Zilberman said.

Opponents included Sandra Hanna, who said she’d participated in the Presbyterian Church USA’s decision to divest itself of companies supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

“Boycotting is not a method of discrimination against people. It is a nonviolent tool used to end evil policies directed toward people. LB845 is not about discrimination toward Israel. It is a way to penalize businesses in Nebraska that stand in solidarity with justice for Palestininans,” Hanna said.

Hanna also complained that Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system protects Israelis, but not Palestinians. Committee Chair Sen. Tom Brewer questioned Douglas Paterson, another opponent of the bill, about that.

“If you were to not have anything launched into Israel from Palestine, do you think the Iron Dome would be necessary or would even exist?” Brewer asked.

Paterson answered that what’s needed is an intense dialogue about the deeper problems of Israel and Palestine.

“The presence of the Iron Dome simply seals Israel off further. Because the real crisis is when a hundred airborne jets go over and bomb places like Gaza,” Paterson said.

In an executive session following the hearing, the committee voted 3-2 to advance the bill, with one senator not voting and two absent. It takes five votes to advance, so the outcome is yet to be determined.