Monday, January 6, 2014

The DNA Difference: debate over crime-fighting tool

Posted: Monday, December 30, 2013

The burglar who stole $3,200 in lottery tickets, 56 packs of cigarettes and $56 left behind few clues: a broken window, a large rock and blood drops on a calculator and a food crate.
The 2011 Bristol Township gas station break-in remained unsolved until earlier this year, when 54-year-old James Lee Wilson Sr. confessed to the crime.
While there was other evidence against Wilson, police said he admitted his role after a court order was obtained for a DNA sample. Wilson's cheek swab was compared with DNA extracted from the blood collected at the burglary scene and the results matched, police said.
“Bingo — that was it,” Bristol Township Police Lt. Terry Hughes said, adding that Wilson admitted cutting his hand on the broken glass.
Wilson eventually pleaded guilty in Bucks County Court to burglary; he was sentenced to two to five years in prison.
In recent years, DNA testing has become the new gold standard for crime-solving. A growing number of police departments nationwide routinely use the technology that was once reserved for violent crimes to help solve more abundant, but low-priority ones like burglary, theft and vandalism.
Recently, the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office announced that a dozen police departments, led by Plumstead, plan to participate in a local DNA database that the Bensalem Police Department started three years ago.
“It is the future of police work,” Upper Southampton police Chief Ron MacPherson said.
The handful of Bucks County police departments that regularly use DNA evidence with property crimes say it makes a significant difference in solving crimes. Most times, when suspects are confronted with DNA evidence tying them to a crime, they admit guilt, police say.
But the growing popularity of DNA testing in property crimes is not without controversy. Results can take often take a year or longer at the state-run forensics lab, police say. There is also growing concern about privacy and the accuracy of so-called “touch” DNA, which is obtained from items that come in close contact with the body and may result in the transfer of skin cells.
Property crimes keep area police departments the busiest. They are also among the toughest crimes to solve, police say.
Only 10 percent of 3.3 million U.S. burglaries in 2011 resulted in arrests, according to the most recent federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, 80 percent of the more than 108,000 reported property crimes were unsolved — and that was the highest rate of property-crime resolution in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report data.
A 2008 study found that collecting and testing blood and hair found at crime scenes is far more effective than fingerprints for identifying suspects. The two-year, five-city National Institute of Justice field study also found that suspects identified by DNA had at least twice as many prior felony arrests and convictions as those identified through traditional police investigation.
With DNA testing, police collect biological evidence at a crime scene that is then submitted to a lab for analysis and put into a DNA database. If a profile match is generated, that means the person cannot be ruled out as a suspect. Police then must obtain a DNA sample directly from the person for comparison, often through a court order.
Since 1990, the federal government and the U.S. military have collected DNA from individuals convicted of felonies and stored the genetic profiles in databases. A 1994 law created a national database where law enforcement agencies can compare and share information on DNA matches from convicted felons.
The largest database, the Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS, has more than 11 million DNA profiles in its database, including 300,000 from Pennsylvania alone, according to the Pennsylvania State Police.    
Detective Sgt. David Richardson testing for DNA 
THE DNA DIFFERENCE
Police use of DNA in property crimes varies locally.
Bristol police haven’t used it yet and Bensalem is the only local department in Pennsylvania that maintains its own DNA database.
Falls police officers routinely swab crime scenes for touch DNA as part of crime scene processing, said Detective Sgt. Nelson Whitney III. The department generally holds the samples in evidence until a suspect is developed and then the samples are sent to a lab for analysis.
“We have obtained usable DNA and matched it to suspects from many types of surfaces, including a rock thrown through a window to make entry, in one case,” Whitney said, adding that the burglary case resulted in an arrest and conviction.
Lower Southampton police started using DNA testing for burglaries and thefts about four years ago, Lt. Ted Krimmel said. The department sends DNA samples to the state police lab about 15 times a year, he said.
“Sometimes, we don't get an ID, but the sample is put in an unsolved database in case the offender's DNA winds up in the system later,” he said. “Every once in a while, we get lucky.”
Like a few years ago, when police nabbed a suspected burglar who left behind a sweaty headband and cigarette butts, Krimmel said. The suspect’s DNA profile matched DNA evidence in other pharmacy burglaries and he was charged with them as well, he added.
Middletown police Detective Patrick Nicastro said his department sends DNA evidence to state forensic labs on a monthly basis, but it’s not uncommon to wait a year or longer before results return.
More than a year passed before Middletown got back DNA results taken at two unsolved burglaries in 2010. Both cases ended with the suspects pleading guilty.
Nicastro said he believes the state’s backlog is partly related to departments sending multiple DNA swabs when they don’t have an identified suspect. Bad guys aren’t the only ones who touch items, so police will collect DNA from anyone who may have had contact with an item, such as a door handle, to rule out suspects, he said.
For a decade, the Pennsylvania State Police Forensic DNA division in Greensburg has processed biological evidence, including touch DNA, involving property crimes, Director Beth Ann Marne said.
About half of the more than 2,000 requests the lab receives annually involve property-related crimes, she added. The growing demand has forced the state lab to limit the number of drug-related cases and the types of evidence, such as drug paraphernalia, that it accepts, Marne said.
“We were surprised by the response we got early on,” she said. “We saw the value in it early on. But it’s still amazing to me that we continue to see the substantial increases every year (for property crimes requests).”
Before it recently added staff, the state lab experienced backlogs involving property crime DNA results of as long as a year because violent crimes always take priority, Marne said.
Over the last two years, the state has devoted “significant” resources to increasing lab staff, Marne said, adding that wait times have dropped. The state lab now has almost 50 people working in the forensics DNA division, double the number from a few years ago.

'A GREAT TOOL'
The long wait for results through state labs is why Bensalem turned to a private lab in 2010, shaving its wait time to 30 days or less. In November, the department took the technology to the next step, piloting a first-of-its-kind, rapid DNA initiative that generates results in 90 minutes.
Bensalem's private database has only about 6,500 DNA profiles, compared to the millions in CODIS, which the department still uses for violent crime investigations. But the smaller database has played a role in 150 criminal investigations, mostly involving otherwise unsolvable drug and property crimes, said Fred Harran, director of public safety.
Among them was a 2011 cold case involving three stolen cars that was cracked last year after police obtained DNA samples from suspects caught breaking into cars. One of the suspect's DNA profiles matched DNA evidence recovered from the stolen cars, Harran said.
Harran has declined to discuss the exact cost of the private lab testing program — which processes about 150 samples a month — but did say it’s less than $200,000 a year and it’s paid through federal drug-forfeiture money the department receives for being part of a regional task force.
“To me, it’s a priority,” Harran added. “It’s a great tool and I hope more departments come on board.”
In recent years, other local police departments have paid Bensalem to process DNA samples when they've developed a suspect in a property-related crime. The cost is generally $100 to $200 a sample, and the DNA profile remains in the local database.
Middletown police paid Bensalem to process DNA evidence it obtained from a person of interest in an unsolved burglary in April 2012, where $1,500 in jewelry was stolen, Nicastro said. When dried blood was found on a stairwell handrail, walls and an empty piggy bank, police suspected the burglar had cut himself on the window he broke to enter the home.
Two months later, Middletown police interviewed 26-year-old Morrisville resident Peter Chomiak, a suspect in two other burglaries. Police believed he also committed the April burglary, but Chomiak claimed that he couldn’t remember.
Chomiak agreed to provide a DNA sample to compare with the blood collected at the home. In August, police got the results: Chomiak’s DNA matched. He was charged with the burglary, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 to 48 months in prison.
That a suspect would agree to give a DNA sample doesn’t surprise Bensalem’s Harran. He estimated as many as 90 percent of suspects will volunteer samples. 
Earlier this year, Bensalem discontinued its use of elimination DNA testing, where samples are obtained from home or property owners to narrow the suspect field. That testing increased the number of samples tested and related costs, Harran said.
CONCERNS ABOUT PRIVACY
Privacy experts believe DNA testing isn't as foolproof as law enforcement agencies would like to believe.
Penn State University Law School professor David Kaye, an authority on DNA evidence, believes privacy issues with the technology focus mainly on the reliability of touch DNA.
There can be difficulty interpreting touch DNA samples if analysts use an unusually small sample or a degraded one, Kaye said. Critics argue that such samples are vulnerable to contamination and cannot be scientifically validated for accuracy.
Meanwhile, a 2008 National Institute of Justice DNA study found that blood evidence was more effective in solving property crimes than other biological evidence, particularly evidence from items a suspect handled or touched.
Another major criticism of the routine use of DNA testing is that it has moved beyond its original intention of connecting people convicted of violent crimes with unsolved violent crimes.
These days, ever-expanding DNA databases have created a pool of “permanent suspects,” said Michael Risher, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and a national expert on DNA forensics and genetic privacy issues.
“Some people have called it a lifetime of genetic surveillance,” he said. “We don’t believe that innocent Americans should have their genetic blueprint in a giant database.”
Another concern for Risher about using DNA testing as the first approach to crime solving is that if it’s unsuccessful, there's a greater likelihood a case will be shelved. He also worries about the creation of a two-tier justice system, where minor crimes in wealthier communities are solved but violent crimes in less wealthy areas aren't.
Despite those concerns, defense lawyers say DNA evidence is compelling and difficult to refute.
Doylestown attorney Charles Jonas recently had a case where police obtained a search warrant for his client’s DNA based on the results of evidence obtained from a ski mask connected with a crime.
"Sometimes, they’ll say the odds are one in a trillion,” Jonas said, adding that DNA hasn’t been a make-or-break element with his cases. “In some ways, people have held it to be more reliable, but you can’t just look at the report and say it’s a given.”
Defense attorney Niels Eriksen once represented a suspect whose DNA was connected to 20 burglaries. He called DNA testing an example of good police work, but also questioned its appropriate use.
No matter how sensitive the testing becomes, defense lawyers will always have questions about how the results were generated, Eriksen said. Those questions include how the sample was processed, who had access to the DNA database and how the database is maintained.
“The trick or challenge is, how do you collect DNA, and when is it appropriate to collect?” he asked.
Referring to George's Orwell's novel about a totalitarian state with constant government surveillance, Eriksen added:  “Do we want to have a ‘1984’ situation?”

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