Monday, September 18, 2006

DNA Awareness Month

This month is DNA Awareness Month here in California, and what most of us are becoming more aware of is that a hell of a lot more cases might be solved if there wasn't such a big logjam in the vicinity of Richmond, courtesy of Sacramento and a few stingy counties. Before I lose those of you don't live in California, let me point out that this problem could easily be the obstacle to solving crimes in any state in the U.S., so if you live in the U.S., this could affect you.

DNA 101 -- it's not enough to find DNA evidence at a crime scene. To be of use, that evidence, once processed, creates a profile that has to be matched to a suspect's DNA profile. If no suspect is known, then there is only one place where a match may be found: in a DNA database. The FBI's national database is known as CODIS. You can see some fairly recent statistics on it here.

CODIS has two indexes. The Forensic Index is made up of DNA profiles from crime scene evidence. The Offender Index is made up of DNA profiles from samples taken from known individuals, mostly individuals who were in custody for violent crimes.

So a DNA Offender profile from a man in prison for a breaking and entering case in California might match the Forensic profile for a rape and murder case in Maine. In fact, this kind of thing is happening all over the U.S. -- cases from one state find a match to an offender being held in another. In July of this year, over 144,000 cases waited for a match in the FBI database.
Needless to say, you'd like to get a match before the offender is released, before the statute of limitations runs out on the crime, before you mistakenly hold an innocent person in custody for the crime, and before the offender harms new victims. (Sadly, mostly due to backlogs, what happens is that the word "after" has too often replaced the word "before.")

Each state has its own laws about Offender DNA collection -- whose DNA must be collected. Some require it only of violent sexual offenders, others collect only from those held for certain felonies. Some take samples from all felons. And as I've mentioned previously, many states can't keep up with the workload when it comes to DNA sample collection or evidence processing. Hell, some aren't even fingerprinting all arrestees.

But sample collection isn't a problem in California.

Processing the samples is. In this, California is not unlike other states, except as a matter of degree.

Some other day maybe I'll go wild on the civics lesson and talk about California's ballot proposition system, but for now, I'll just say that we passed a law that has greatly increased the number of convicts who must submit samples of their DNA for inclusion in the database, and eventually (in 2009, if it isn't shot down in court) it will require all felony arrestees to do so. Counties are supposed to help pay for this by forking over $1 of every $10 collected in misdemeanor fines. Not all of the counties are cooperating, so there's a huge shortfall.

Richmond is where the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Forensic Services is located. This is where the processing of Offender DNA samples (basically, taking the swabs, processing them by certain protocols, and creating DNA profiles which are then loaded into the FBI's database) takes place.

According to a recent article by Henry Weinstein in the Los Angeles Times, "the starting salary at the Richmond lab is $3,100, compared with $4,600 a month at the Los Angeles Police Department laboratory and $4,200 a month at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department." And in a story on this backlog in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Paul DeCarlo reports, "Their counterparts at the San Bernardino County sheriff's scientific investigations division, who enter DNA profiles of most Riverside County cases as well, earn about $8,667 per month."

You don't have to be taking calculus to do the math. Few analysts stay in the Richmond lab for long. Higher salaries are offered by cities and counties in the San Francisco Bay area, too.

And without the monies from the misdemeanor fines, the samples can't be sent out to private labs.

Since Prop 69 passed, over 2600 cases have been solved. That's victims and families with answers they've long awaited. That's suspects taken into custody and off of the streets. Law enforcement and prosecutors believe the number of "hits" could be greatly increased, if our nearly 300,000 sample backlog was diminished.

Some of our government officials get the picture. Others don't.

If you live in California -- or anywhere else in the U.S. -- before you vote for any candidate, ask where he or she stands on issues like these. Ask candidates how they plan to demonstrate their support for forensic science.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Illuminating, as always. Scary.

I can't help but wonder if there's a correlation to the stats on crimes solved. There must be.

Anonymous said...

Jan, great information as ususal.

I wish everyone could be made to understand that DNA is rarely the piece of evidence that solves a crime. It's almost always just good old fashioned legwork by dedicated detectives that gets the job done.

Interestingly, DNA profiling is not as accurate as most people (especially juries) think. There are many, many causes for error and misinterpretation of the electropherograms (DNA results), such as mixed samples, electrical surges, software errors, contamination by officers and lab technicians, etc. The list is long.

Another problem in DNA testing is that out of every 459,000 pairs of siblings three of those pairs should have matching DNA at all 26 tested locations (loci). To further complicate things there are 5,000 pairs of non-twins in the U.S. alone whose DNA is a perfect match. The point I'm making is that it is possible to arrest and convict the wrong person based upon a perfect DNA match. Defense attorneys are learning of these inconsistencies, and more and more suspects are set free as a result.

There must be supporting evidence in any criminal case. Cops should never rely on DNA alone.

Jan Burke said...

Hi Sandra --

There are, of course, many factors in unsolved crimes, but better labs would undoubtedly make the detectives' job easier. As it is now, in far too many jurisdictions they can't rely on results coming back from the lab in time to make a difference.


Jan Burke said...

Thanks, Lee.

One of the problems with people believing what they see on TV is that they don't get the whole picture -- investigations require a lot of work by people outside the lab. No lab is going to be of help if there is no one around to follow up on their findings. It also takes a lot of work on the prosecution side, too. The lab is a necessary compotent, but every piece of evidence must be placed in a context to have meaning.


Anonymous said...

It is truly frustrating to gather a ton of evidence only to discover that the wait time in the lab is months.

I've arrested suspects, the courts convicted them, they served their time in jail, and then I received a matching fingerprint (this was prior to AFIS and LiveScan) from the lab - AFTER the guy had already served his time!

The lab situation is not good. Funding within individual police departments is awful, too. A lot of police officers purchase equipment and supplies with their own money. It's sad.