How to Save Lives With DNA Testing

Three years ago in Albemarle County, Virginia, Jesse Matthew Jr. abducted and murdered promising 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. Her skeletal remains were found more than a month later in the woods of southern Albemarle. Her grief-stricken father had this to say of his daughter: “She was bright. She was witty. She was beautiful. And she made people happy.”

In 2009, Mr. Matthew had murdered Morgan Harrington, another young student, and four years before that had attacked and sexually assaulted a woman in Fairfax, Va., leaving DNA beneath her fingernails, which would lead to his conviction after the two murders. But Jesse Matthew had been convicted of misdemeanor criminal trespass in 2010. Had his DNA been recorded at the time, it would have linked him to the 2005 Fairfax attack, and Hannah Graham would be alive today.

The criminal-justice system, legislatures, and, indirectly, all of us have failed these and countless other victims of brutal abductions, rapes, torture, and murder. In Virginia as in most states, no procedure is in place to record DNA following certain serious misdemeanors. Because of the efforts of Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding, nine Class 1 misdemeanors have been added to the previous five eligible for DNA collection, but scores of Class 1 offenses are exempt. He proposes to include them.

Last year in the U.S., according to preliminary FBI figures, more than 15,000 people were murdered and 90,000 forcibly raped. Whereas relatively few of those who commit misdemeanors go on to more consequential crimes, most of those who do commit serious crimes have a record of prior misdemeanors. In New York state the average first-time felon has three. Major felons tend to be recidivists. As illustrated by the cases outlined above, many thousands of lives could be protected or saved by solving one crime before a perpetrator has the opportunity to commit others. Police and prosecutors would be freed to work other cases, and, not least, false convictions would decrease and exonerations of the falsely convicted rise.

With the Blue Ridge as the backdrop, the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office is hardly something out of “My Cousin Vinny” or “In the Heat of the Night.” True, there are the “No Weapons Beyond This Point” signs, the bulletproof glass, the M4 locker, and 70 sworn officers passing in and out like bees in a hive. But they are a highly qualified, integrated, and ethical force, which, with its unusual reserve division, claims interpreters of half a dozen languages, fixed-wing and helicopter pilots, and military, intelligence, medical, and legal professionals.

At the head is Sheriff Harding, one of the International Chiefs of Police “Top Ten Cops” in America, an FBI Academy graduate with more than 40 years on the job. In his office, he analyzes spreadsheets with thousands of data points relevant to the correlation of major felonies with prior misdemeanors. He has been at it for decades, working with the Innocence Project, testifying before Congress and the state Legislature.

Why such devotion? “If one Nathan Washington had submitted his DNA when convicted of a misdemeanor in 1998,” he answers, “he never would have become the notorious Charlottesville serial rapist, who raped at least seven women. His DNA would have returned a ‘hit’ from a 1997 rape in another town. I wouldn’t have had to enter the room where one of his victims’ blood was spattered over three walls as he raped and beat her for hours. The six other women would have been spared. Isn’t that enough for devotion?”

Sheriff Harding faces two main impediments: that to be maximally effective, the steps he recommends must be implemented across thousands of jurisdictions, most of which have yet to be introduced to the idea; and, in the era of big data, civil liberties objections arise, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Maryland v. King (2013) affirming police authority to sample DNA after arrests for a broad range of criminal offenses.

The first obstacle requires a good and well-publicized argument. As for the second, requiring DNA from everyone would be egregiously invasive, but what is proposed instead is that a person exits the realm of innocence when (with exceptions such as driving under the influence) he is convicted of a crime subject to arrest and incarceration. Biometric and fingerprint data would be taken as a matter of course, and a cheek swab is less demanding than having fingerprints done or tattoos photographed.

The sheriff’s carefully sourced arguments have allies both likely and unlikely. Across the street, in the court complex once frequented by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, is the office of Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, a former federal deputy assistant attorney general and chief legislative counsel and parliamentarian to the House Judiciary Committee. Having assisted passage of the 2004 Justice for All Act and other major federal criminal justice reforms, he has lent the weight of his expertise and experience to this effort. “DNA technology,” he says, “advances justice by solving crime and freeing the innocent. With adequate safeguards, it is neither partisan nor biased, but essential.”

Strange bedfellows are Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, are on board nonetheless, having subjected all serious misdemeanors in their states to DNA collection. “Blue” New York is exemplary in making the connection between misdemeanors and major crime, despite its similarity in spirit to James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” policing, which liberals hardly embrace, even though — or perhaps because — it works.

Sheriff Harding’s and Mr. Tracci’s advocacy is neither partisan nor overbearing. It is completely race-neutral. It does not threaten civil liberties. Even as it would make use of the federal DNA clearing center to coordinate state “hits,” their initiative arises, consonant with the finest traditions of federalism, from the people and the states, rather than from the top.

Their arguments are detailed and reflective of their training, experience, and judicious consideration. Their passion is informed by the prospect that so much violence, suffering, and death can be avoided if their policy is embraced. Hannah Graham would still be alive today, and her family not perpetually aggrieved. Multiply that by the thousands and tens of thousands.


This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2017.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, is the author of “Winter’s Tale,” “A Soldier of the Great War” and the forthcoming novel “Paris in the Present Tense.”

How to Defuse the North Korean Threat

North Korea has embarked at breakneck speed upon a slipshod effort to field land-, mobile-, and submarine-based ICBMs with nuclear warheads. Unlike the eight other nuclear powers, North Korea’s doctrine resides unknowingly and capriciously in the mind of one man.

All nuclear doctrines are different, but most never go beyond the conditional when treating their arsenals as instruments of deterrence. North Korea, however, issues an unrelenting stream of histrionic threats that comport with its recklessness in the shelling of South Korea and sinking of one of its warships, the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in Japan, assassinations abroad, executions and Stalinist gulags at home, criminal sources of revenue, proliferation of missilery, and, tellingly, its perpetual war footing.

The totality of its declarations, behavior, and accelerating nuclear trajectory cannot be ignored. Nuclear weapons alone radically change the calculus of any strategic problem. Given the complexity and fragile interdependence of the structures of American life, nuclear detonations in only a few of our cities constitute a true existential danger. North Korea’s successful August test of the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile — along with its construction of a second ballistic-missile submarine and its development of longer-range land-based missiles — will put North America at risk.

Note that North Korea has no defensive need of nuclear weapons. Because of the vulnerability of South Korean population centers, it can exercise an almost equivalent deterrence with its conventional forces and huge stockpile of chemical weapons.

Over two decades the U.S. has run the extremes from President Clinton’s foolish or deceptive claim that his diplomacy had solved the North Korean nuclear problem, through the serial procrastinations of subsequent administrations, until the belated realization that if nothing else works the U.S. will have to attack North Korea full force. The first option has failed. The second, to which it is possible we may be compelled, is catastrophic.

The heart of South Korea’s economy and half its 50 million people are densely concentrated within range of the approximately 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces, rocket launchers, and short-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering chemical munitions, of which North Korea has an estimated 5,000 metric tons. Even conventional explosives would have a devastating effect. No matter how fast South Korean and American forces raced to suppress such fires, not to mention a nuclear attack itself, millions would probably die.

With such shock and escalation there is no guarantee that China or Russia would not come to North Korea’s aid. Russia could also take the opportunity to feast upon Eastern Europe if American power were monopolized by the battle, as it would be.

As undesirable are the two extremes of a North Korean nuclear strike or pre-emptive war in armament-saturated East Asia, America cannot accept the former. The U.S. will be forced to the latter if it fails to exploit the considerable ground that still lies between them.

North Korea is almost entirely dependent upon China, which is responsible for 85% of its trade, knows the country, and might have links to still-living potential replacements for Kim Jong Un. Given China’s fearless and severe nuclear doctrine, it is itself invulnerable to North Korean threats. Until recently, China has been content with North Korea as a fleet-in-being — i.e., something with which to tie down competing powers in Asia, or unleash as another front in case of conflict elsewhere.

Now that things have gone too far, U.S. actions combined with the natural course of events can influence China to change this policy and move to defang the North. Throughout Chinese history instability has led to ruination. Seoul is closer to Beijing than San Francisco is to Seattle, and China does not want a major war on its border, especially one that may draw in the U.S. and Japan, both now augmenting conventional forces in the area.

President Trump wisely has been willing to abandon demonization of China and modify his protectionist catchall in return for China’s assistance. Yet it is of utmost importance for the U.S. to make clear that the Korean issue, unique and existential, will not be part of any strategic trade, such as in regard to the South China Sea.

China knows that the U.S. must respond to the North’s ongoing breakout, but even should it have doubts, further pressure will automatically ensue. To wit, South Korea and Japan are already well within North Korean missile range and have every reason to mount a vigorous ballistic missile defense. Now the U.S. has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in South Korea. By obtaining early launch and trajectory data as it reaches deep into China, Thaad’s X-band radar is capable of enhancing American missile defense to the point of seriously compromising China’s nuclear deterrent.

Should the U.S., Japan, and South Korea further bolster missile defense in northeast Asia, it would have commensurate effects on China’s nuclear posture. Even more nightmarish for everyone, particularly China, would be if South Korea and (until now unthinkably) Japan developed their own nuclear deterrents, something that in the face of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and declarations the U.S. could not justly oppose any more than it opposes the British and French independent nuclear forces.

Avoiding an escalation crisis is in the interest of all involved, China no less than the U.S. Although America’s outrageous neglect of the North Korean nuclear threat has led to this pass, there is still a way out. It requires steady nerves and a clear view of the strategic interplay among all parties. The fundamental dynamics of interests and security are now bringing China into a genuine, if temporary, alignment with the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. The U.S. should be wide awake to this in the days to come, because it may be, in fact, the only way out. If not, Katy bar the door.

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] 01 May 2017: A.17.

Speaking Freely

The wars about English are fought predominantly on the battlefields of grammar, syntax, and general usage. Unlike French, as puritan in regard to adoption as are the Japanese in regard to immigration, English has always promiscuously embraced anything that washes up on its shores. Partly because of its Norse, Teutonic, and Latinate roots; the world-spanning embrace of the British Empire; and the ease of incorporating borrowings into a declension-free structure, English has by far the richest vocabulary of any language, by some accounts exceeding a million words.

The democratic impulse that distinguishes the English-speaking nations has given English the kind of free-wheeling egalitarianism absent in countries where vestigial aristocracy survives in academies that lock down language. Anglo-American dominance and wealth have drawn into the lexicon the vocabularies of science, business, technology, art, academics, entertainment, the military, popular culture, etc., that many languages lack for want of the opportunity to develop such things so richly. And the dynamism of English allows it to discard the old as readily as it embraces the new. When was the last time you thought about a liripoop (the tail of an academic hood)?

Language wars reflect political, philosophical, and cultural divisions: ordered liberty versus careless anarchy, tradition versus progression, inquiry into the etymology of words versus disdain for their original constitution, and, not to be ignored, the freighted division between the idea that the meaning of language is rooted in objective reality and that, in the absence of discoverable truth, language means whatever the most powerful force at the moment decrees. The advance guard of ideological infection is the postmodern theories of MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. A grammar based upon the Latin was good enough for Shakespeare. Compare his style to Chomsky’s, and the case is closed.

From such deficiencies arises not constructive evolution but disfigurement, for language must have an intelligible common currency, and like any currency it requires an objective basis, judicious maintenance, shared utility, and constancy. Politicized and process-oriented American education has combined with atrocities like Twitter, texting, and other truncated, thumb-driven means of expression to do astoundingly rapid damage to an otherwise intelligent linguistic progression.

We all make mistakes, and many rules are sometimes beneficially broken, but now even professional writers, especially journalists, are largely semi-literate. Examples could fill an encyclopedia, but here are just a few that point to a lack of knowledge or care.

One reads now of a France based such and such, or even, recently, the Turkey prime minister. Next will be the America president. Too many adjectives may hobble a style, but why exterminate them? French-based is an adjectival phrase in which an adjective modifies a participle, much like the wonderful African-American contribution to the language, crazy-assed, assed being a participle from the newly minted verb ass, to endow with an ass. The crazy-assed Chomskyites might call this a descriptor.

* * *

Pure ignorance has substituted reticent, meaning reluctant to speak, for reluctant itself, just as ideology has substituted Ms. for Miss and Mrs., all of them abbreviations for Mistress, and Miss having served quite well to make ambiguous a woman’s marital status. The New York Times is more responsible than any other actor for the rape of prepositions. It would be one thing if it confined itself to the phrase “standing on line,” New York usage for sure. But the Times will note concern on rather than for, and a study on rather than of. Now we have arriving to, advocating for (and worse, against), surrounded on two sides, and weather forecasters who think they are meatorologists.

We often hear of survivors of one thing or another. True, one may live through many a depredation, as opposed to dying. One may live through a Barbra Streisand concert or a Hillary Clinton speech as opposed to dying, but to have survived is more appropriate to having withstood a threat to life. One may correctly survive an assault which was also attempted murder. One does not survive a burglary or a micro-aggression. For years now, the Baltic Republics and their successors have been called The Baltics. This is a thoughtless analogy to the Balkans, which are mountains, plural, and are not a group of countries but a region, like the Rockies or the Alps. The Baltic is a sea, singular. One can say the Pacific nations, but not the Pacifics, although—after the Baltics—the Atlantics, the Pacifics, the Indians, and the Mediterraneans are probably next.

One could go on and on. Such objections are not, as they could be, pedantry, but rather mourning for the passage of certain habits of thought, care, and education. Attention to language is to civilization what broken windows policing is to public order and domestic tranquility. Unfortunately, those who appreciate it are probably those who already exercise it, and those who need it probably will not appreciate it.

Undoubtedly I have erred even within this column, but if anyone protests that I have he will be making my point. The evolution of language is best sharpened and polished by protest and debate showing a decent respect to the magnificent instrument of which we are the inheritors and custodians. Without such consideration the anarchy that will follow may eventually degenerate into snorts, bellows, hisses, and grunts (who are, coincidentally, my attorneys).

No one should be taken in by reflexive and fulsome professions of allegiance to the idea of unlimited linguistic flexibility, for, just as in politics, the revolutionary mind is libertine until it is accorded control, after which it enforces the eternal stasis of the grave. The first sign of a will to power is the lust for destruction. And the only chance for a language to deepen in expression and widen in application is if it can thrive in a garden of ordered liberty.

This article appeared in: Volume XVII, Number 2 of The Claremont Review of Books.