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Couple wants to expand DNA database

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

ATLANTA -- When Johnia Berry was brutally raped and killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 6, 2004, her mother Joan clung to the hope that the DNA found at the crime scene would soon put the murderer behind bars.

But a detective told Joan Berry that despite the more than 100 specimens taken from Johnia's apartment near the University of Tennessee, the state's DNA database was horribly inadequate and the killer might never be found.

From then on, every day off that Joan Berry had, she drove to Knoxville and passed out fliers. She and her husband bought billboards and kept pushing for information about the killer.

They also took their cause to the statehouse, lobbying to expand the DNA laws in Tennessee. They succeeded in 2007.

Now, the Lawrenceville couple is beginning the fight in Georgia.

Rep. Rob Telheit, a Democrat from Smyrna who is running for attorney general, said he plans to file the Johnia Berry Act later this week.

If passed, the legislation would require anyone arrested on felony charges to submit a DNA sample for the state database. While 21 states and the federal government already require DNA collection upon arrest, Georgia's laws only require collection from a limited number of felons upon conviction.

"I speak from the heart of a mother that still after five years finds this very hard," Joan Berry said, wiping tears at a press conference at the Georgia Capitol on Monday.

Surrounded by other mothers of women raped and killed who worked to change DNA laws in their home states, Berry said she didn't understand arguments about privacy rights when DNA can exonerate those who are wrongly accused and give victims' families comfort sooner.

"DNA is so much better than a fingerprint," she said. "Why would you care to have your DNA taken if you didn't plan on doing anything wrong? I'd much rather have my DNA taken than my social security number."

Almost 25 years after she was raped, shot and left for dead in Savannah, Susan Cash said she has little hope the legislation will help her find her attacker.

She was able to have her case reopened five years ago, but she said her rape kit was destroyed three years after the attack. Her clothes, she said, may hold the key to some answers.

But Cash, who now lives in Winder and runs the Piedmont Rape Crisis Center, said the bill could do a lot to put offenders behind bars before they can hurt someone else.

Even though she has little reason to believe her attacker will be caught, she still wants to see him behind bars.

"I will go to my grave hoping. I will go to my grave always wishing, waiting, deserving to know," she said. "It's hard to let go of a person that was a monster for so long, haunted you for years, down to your core."

Cash said she blamed herself for years for the lack of movement on her case, and she doesn't want that to happen to another victim.

"It's all about accountability," she said during the press conference, pointing to victims' rights more than the rights of the offender. "I definitely believe it will be saving lives."

In Tennessee, where the Berrys first took their cause, DNA provided matches in 40 cases last year thanks to the new law, Joan Berry said.

Just months after the law, passed in 2007, the Berrys prayers were answered, and DNA pointed to a suspect in their daughter's case, Taylor Lee Olson. Olson hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial.

While they did not have to testify at his trial, Michael and Joan Berry did struggle to tell the story of their daughter's death during legislative hearings in Tennessee.

But they said they would gladly begin the heart-breaking process again to have the law passed in Georgia.

"Anything it takes," she said. "I think Johnia would want us to."