TEXAS CITY — Few would blame Monetta “Jeannie” Baker Escamilla for taking some time to rest and reflect after a year that saw the man who raped and murdered her daughter 16 years ago sent to prison. But the conviction was not the end for Escamilla, who plans to push for a law that could make it easier for police to catch people like the man who killed her daughter, Krystal Baker.
In April, Kevin Edison Smith, 45, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. Smith would likely never have even been charged in Baker’s death were it not for a mandatory DNA testing law in Louisiana, where he was arrested on a drug charge. Authorities put his DNA into a national database that connected him to what had been an unsolvable case.
In Texas, the law requires that all registered sex offenders and convicted felons submit DNA samples. The law also provides that some minors who serve in a state juvenile detention facility and felons under community supervision programs provide DNA.
The DNA record is incorporated into the national Combined DNA Index System. Much like the fingerprint database, the system allows cross-referencing when a crime includes DNA evidence.
Louisiana is one of 24 states that provide for DNA samples upon arrest, said Rich Williams of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state laws on DNA collection in criminal cases. All 50 states require DNA gathering upon a felony conviction.
Escamilla is working with State Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, to expand Texas’ law. She wants to see a law that requires a DNA sample taken upon arrest.
Eiland introduced a similar bill in 2011, but it didn’t get out of committee.
“I feel like it needs to be done when you get your driver’s license,” Escamilla said. “I believe that would prevent a lot of crimes and solve a lot of crimes because criminals have to drive some way to get to their crime scene.”
At minimum, DNA should be taken when someone is arrested, she said.
“To me, it’s no different from you having to give your fingerprint when you’re arrested now,” Escamilla said. “DNA is the new fingerprint — but it’s more concrete than just the fingerprints.”
In Texas, DNA is collected and put into the national database only when federal funds are available and only after a person has been convicted of a felony. There are provisions for DNA to be taken in cases where someone is indicted on certain sex crimes. DNA also can be collected and put into the national database by court order.
Even then, the state claims that there have been 10,000 DNA matches made in criminal cases since Texas passed its first DNA law the year Baker was killed.
Since 1998, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported its lab has helped solve 644 homicides, 3,399 sexual assaults, 4,273 burglaries, 556 robberies and hundreds of other miscellaneous crimes. The lab has analyzed more than 660,000 samples since it was created.
The department credits the expansion of the state system with a dramatic increase in the number of matches to help solve cold cases.
“It took 11 years to reach 1,000 cold hits, but only five more to reach 10,000,” department Director Steven McGraw said.
The biggest hurdle to any expansion of the law is funding. Baker’s case might have remained unsolved had Louisiana officials not had the funding to collect the DNA sample.
State officials confirmed two years ago that funding for the DNA program was running short in parts of that state when Smith was arrested.
Escamilla is aware of that challenge, as well as concerns from civil liberty advocates. She plans to be in Austin during the legislative session, which begins in January, to work for the law’s passage.
“Here I am, just a mama, a little old grandma going up there talking to them,” she said while sitting on a bench she dedicated to her daughter in Texas City’s Rainbow Park. “Sooner or later a DNA law is going to get passed so that mothers like me don’t have to wait 16 years to find out who killed their kids.”
The Krystal Baker case
Krystal Baker was last seen outside a Texas City convenience store on March 5, 1996. Her body was found under the Trinity River Bridge in Chambers County the day she was reported missing but wasn’t identified until 13 days later.
Kevin Edison Smith, a Galveston County native, was not a suspect in Baker’s slaying before DNA gathered during a drug possession arrest in Livonia, La., in January 2010 linked him to the crime.
Chambers County detective Sherry Wilcox, after attending a DNA seminar on new procedures, took a chance and gathered a small sample of DNA from clothing Baker was wearing and “sneaked it in” with a set of DNA samples from other cases that were being sent for testing. A few months later, a match was made.
Smith, who police confirmed was working as a welder in Texas City at the time of Baker’s kidnapping and murder, at first confessed to the crime but later retracted. In April he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison based on the DNA evidence and his taped statements to investigators.