Crusading for Katie

updated 06/22/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Police were sure they had their man. In 2005 they arrested Robert Gonzales for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Victoria Sandoval at her home near Albuquerque. Gonzales, who was mentally challenged, quickly confessed to everything. That might have been the end of it if not for the fact that an illegal immigrant, Israel Diaz, 21, was picked up in April 2008 on felony burglary charges. As Diaz was about to be deported to his native Mexico, state authorities used a new law allowing them to take a DNA swab from him—which matched DNA found at Victoria's crime scene.

Police released Gonzales, and Diaz is now awaiting trial. But prior to 2007 Diaz might well have gotten away scot-free. What slammed the door on him was "Katie's Law," which requires that those arrested for felonies in New Mexico give a DNA sample that can then be included in criminal databases. Before, only convicted felons had to give samples. The spearhead for reform has been Jayann Sepich, 54, whose own daughter Katie was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant in 2003. What's more, in just over three years she and husband Dave, 55, who own a janitorial supply business in Carlsbad, have helped get DNA-on-arrest laws passed in 13 other states, with several others considering bills. Dozens of suspects have been apprehended as a result. "She should be canonized," says Steve Suttle, special council to the attorney general of New Mexico, of Jayann's lobbying work. "She's marvelous."

On the night she died, Katie, a recent graduate of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, had a spat with her boyfriend and walked home alone. The next day police discovered her body—assaulted, strangled and burned—in the city dump. Investigators found DNA on the body. But Jayann was stunned to learn that the sample could not be run against a database of arrested suspects—because there wasn't one. "The officer said, 'It's illegal' to take cheek swabs from arrestees," recalls Jayann, who replied, "Well, it shouldn't be."

Katie's murder went unsolved until December 2006, when police matched the DNA to a man named Gabriel Avila, 28, who had just been convicted of burglary. Katie's Law didn't lead to the arrest—because it had not yet been enacted—but it could have: It turns out Avila had been picked up for aggravated burglary shortly after Katie's death and had jumped bond.

Since 2006 the Sepiches have lobbied every legislator in states without the law. With help from parents like themselves, they have passed similar laws in Colorado, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and Maryland, bringing the total to 19. Still, there are critics. "It runs right up against the presumption of innocence," says Peter Schoenburg, an Albuquerque defense attorney. "None of these people have been convicted of anything, yet they're forced to give up their DNA." The Sepiches, however, believe prevention of crime is more important. Says Dave: "What gives us strength to carry on is that we know there are families all over this county going through the same thing."

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