Originally created 04/10/00

Men undergo mass DNA tests



SYDNEY, Australia -- Police searching for the man who raped a 91-year-old woman began Australia's first mass DNA screening today, starting tests on the entire adult male population of a small rural community.

Police say the mass testing in Wee Waa, 310 miles north of Sydney, is aimed at narrowing the list of potential suspects in the beating and rape of the woman in her home two years ago.

Villagers were free to refuse the test, and Assistant Police Commissioner Clive Small has said those choosing not to be tested will not automatically be thought of as a suspect.

New South Wales state lawmaker Richard Jones questioned that.

"The DNA testing at Wee Waa is not really voluntary because any person who refuses to do it will obviously be deemed to be guilty by the rest of the community," he said.

Some have questioned the value of the tests, saying the rape was committed during cotton-picking season, when the village was flooded with itinerant workers who have long since left.

Civil liberties groups also criticized the screening. Michael Antrum, chairman of New South Wales state Law Society's human rights committee, said it offered "a frightening glimpse of a future police state."

But Wee Waa resident Kerry Watts disagreed, telling Channel 9 television news he saw it as his responsibility to offer a saliva sample to one of 30 police conducting tests in people's homes and in a caravan outside the police station.

"I don't have anything to hide," Watts said. "I do think it's a civic duty rather than an infringement on civil rights."

Not everybody was happy to cooperate.

Solicitor David Sweeny said he and at least three other men will not be tested.

"There really is a presumption that anyone who happens to be living in the area of Wee Waa this weekend is a suspect," Sweeny said. "They have to establish their innocence by submitting to this test that really is contrary to the principles that protect civil liberties that have evolved over more than 100 years in the common law system."

About 600 men over the age of 18 were expected to undergo the screening. The first men to take the tests were the village's police officers, who gave saliva samples on Friday. The testing may not be completed until Wednesday.

Detectives declined to comment on the follow-up to today's measure.

When results are known, innocent men will be informed by letter and their sample will be destroyed, police said.

Such screenings are common in Britain, with more than 100 carried out in the last five years. One-third of those resulted in arrests, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

The British program ran into controversy last year when the government proposed setting up a nationwide DNA databank using samples taken in mass testing. Previously, samples of those proven innocent were destroyed.