Ashley Spence didn’t have to endure the nightmare that she experienced in 2003.
A 19-year-old incoming sophomore at Arizona State University, Spence was suffocated, beaten and raped when a man broke into her campus apartment during her first night back on campus.
After surviving this brutal nightmare, Spence worked tirelessly with detectives to find her attacker, but there were no leads. Fearing for her life, she quit school and moved to Newport Beach, California, in an effort to start fresh. Seven years later, Spence received a shocking call: there was finally a DNA match in her case.
Kevin Lee Francois was caught trying to break into the home of three young women in California and resisted arrest, which is considered a felony in the state. At the time, California was one of only 18 states to require the collection of DNA via a minimally invasive cheek swab, in addition to the usual photographs and fingerprints, during a felony arrest. Francois’ DNA was uploaded to CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), and matched not only Spence’s case, but other rapes across the country and numerous burglaries.
Since the burglaries took place in states that didn’t require DNA collection during felony arrests (they only required it post-conviction), there was no way to connect Francois to the sexual assaults prior to the incident in California. He is now sentenced to 138 years behind bars.
“They were able to prove through forensic DNA evidence in trial that it was 38 trillion times this man’s DNA on me than anybody else’s,” said Spence. “DNA is science. DNA is accurate. DNA is truth. So he was found guilty.”
While Francois can no longer cause harm, there are still many rapists and other criminals walking free in the remaining states — including Pennsylvania — that don’t require DNA collection during a felony arrest. Recently, Spence joined state Reps. Joe Hogan and KC Tomlinson, and state Sen. Frank Farry, at a news conference to announce proposed legislation that would make this a requirement in the commonwealth.
“Current law in Pennsylvania is that DNA is collected post-conviction for some crimes. The law notably excludes homicide,” said Hogan. “Soon, in a bicameral and hopefully bipartisan way, we’ll introduce legislation that will require DNA to be collected post-arrest for all felonies and certain misdemeanors. It will also close the loophole so that DNA is collected for homicides, potentially solving more cold cases.”
Hogan pointed to a recent example of DNA technology benefits. Elias Diaz, a suspect in the November 2023 Pennypack Park Trail slashings, was linked in December to multiple rapes and a murder that occurred in Fairmount Park 20 years ago thanks to DNA evidence.
“That is why we need this change. It will save lives,” said Hogan. “Now law enforcement knows exactly who’s likely to have committed those crimes, go after that individual, charge them and potentially keep them behind bars, preventing them the opportunity to commit more harm. This cannot happen under our current law.”
Tomlinson spotlighted the rise in crime across the U.S. and in Bensalem, where she said 40 percent of criminals don’t even reside in the township.
“This bill is another tool, a key tool in making sure we keep violent offenders off of our streets and out of our neighborhoods,” she said. “This bill would stop a repeated offender in their tracks. It will leave no question of someone’s innocence or guilt, and it gives our police officers the support they need to make sure these criminals end up where they belong: behind bars.”
Farry, who is introducing a companion bill in the Senate, explained how this bill is beneficial beyond getting criminals off the street. It also helps to ensure that innocent people aren’t being locked up for crimes they didn’t commit.
Also present at the news conference was Bucks County Sheriff Fred Harran, who spent more than 30 years with the Bensalem Township Police Department, including 16 as director of public safety. He was introduced to the idea of utilizing DNA technology for solving crimes in 2010, and understands its importance.
“It’s probably one of the best tools I’ve seen in the last 38 years. We have some great crime reduction numbers to prove that, and we need to keep going on and using the tools and technology as we advance in society,” he said, adding, “This prevents crime because you’re getting criminals off the street immediately. This will take criminals off the street and tomorrow, there will be one less victim out there.”
Like Farry, Harran stressed the importance of DNA in proving innocence. In Bucks County, he said, DNA evidence has been used 16 times to exonerate people who otherwise may have gone to jail wrongfully. If proven innocent, DNA is expunged from CODIS.
Spence, founder of the DNA Justice Project who is traveling state to state to stress the importance of such legislation, expressed gratitude toward the elected officials. Studies show that 1 in 6 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, with many attackers having prior felony arrests.
“Seventy-four percent of all serial sexual offenders, according to the study, had a previous arrest. Ninety-five percent had a subsequent felony arrest,” Spence said. “When New Mexico enhanced their database to collect for all felony arrests, they had an 83 percent match rate increase in the database.”
Her hope is that, while she still battles demons from that fateful night, others won’t have to endure such trauma: “What haunted me the most over those seven years that my perpetrator was free, I would try to close my eyes at night, and I would hear the muffled screams of his next victim in my head. He was out there. But now he’s in prison, and we have the power to come under tremendous leadership today to change this for the citizens of Pennsylvania, to protect them, to provide justice, to give hope and exonerate those that are wrongfully accused.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org