New DNA technology aids in fighting crime and thwarting terrorism

by SHERIFF LEON LOTT March 12, 2017

sheriff Lott _ full by tc 600 px

Last week, the Richland County Sheriff's Dept.'s (RCSD) Cold Case Unit solved a murder case that had baffled investigators here in South Carolina for 30 years, and it might never have been solved had it not been for DNA.

In 1987, Patricia Ann Green - a 34-year-old woman - was shot to death and left in a roadside ditch in Sumter County near the main gate of Shaw Air Force Base. She was shot in the face at pointblank range. The motive for Green's gruesome killing? She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she had encountered the wrong man, a cold-blooded killer Phillip Johnson - today a 53-year-old inmate serving life-terms for four other murders - who was then on a killing spree.

The Green murder is one of eleven (out of 81 unsolved cases since 1960) that have been solved since 2000 by the RCSD's Cold Case Unit; a team of retired police investigators formed in 1997 (a decade after Green was killed).

Like many others, the key to solving this crime was the introduction of DNA evidence.

WHAT IS DNA?

We hear a lot today about DNA or Deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is essentially a molecule with "genetic instructions" so to speak. Those instructions program living organisms in the development, growth and function of those organisms. DNA is unique with every person. We gather DNA material from "blood, semen, saliva, urine, feces, hair, teeth, bone, and tissue" as well as cells from dead-skin. We leave traces of our DNA everywhere we go, and though one person's DNA is not the same as another's, DNA can be matched to family members.

When Patricia Ann Green was murdered in 1987 our biometric forensics were primarily limited to fingerprints, which is still a viable means of collecting evidence, but not helpful in that case because there were no fingerprints left by the killer on any of the collected evidence. The following year, 1988, a British murder suspect became the first-ever person to be convicted and sentenced based on DNA evidence, sometimes today referred to as "genetic fingerprinting" or "DNA fingerprinting."

DNA was widely used in the wake of 9/11 to help identify many of the 2,600-plus victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York (taking swabs from persons who were missing family members believed to have perished when the towers collapsed). And DNA biometrics have been utilized in numerous other applications from crime-fighting and counterterrorism to paternity testing and medical research. DNA-work in solving cold cases and even in preventing acts of terrorism are applications still in their infancy, but that dynamic - like all 21st century technologies - is changing, and it's a rapid change.

RAPID DNA TESTING

Today, we not only have DNA testing, but "rapid DNA" testing machines - devices not much bigger than desktop laser-printers - which not only can be easily operated by a non-tech person, but produce accurate science-based match-results in as little as 90 minutes. Moreover, the size of the rapid DNA machine is such that it can be carried into the field.

This is a highly sophisticated technology combined with a relatively new user-friendly application of that technology virtually unheard of until a few short years ago. And with greater intelligence-sharing and the ever-expanding DNA database being developed worldwide, rapid DNA technology can easily serve as a means by which terrorists and terrorism can be stopped dead in its tracks before an attack is ever launched in this country.

THWARTING TERRORISM

Take for example, an insurgent planting an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our combat engineers there on the ground might discover and diffuse the IED planted by the insurgent. The insurgent may not be apprehended, but his DNA may be left on-or-around the IED. DNA can literally be extracted from, for instance, the wires on the bomb. Samples are then collected, analyzed, and placed into the DNA database.

Then let's say - for whatever reason - we apprehend a criminal suspect or a suspected terrorist in this country weeks after the DNA sample was taken from the IED. One of our law-enforcement officers takes a "cheek swab" sample (from the inside of the mouth) of the suspect, runs a rapid-DNA test on the swabbed sample. The sample is then processed through the machine, running it through a global database, and in a very short time a profile is produced that matches with the DNA-residue left by the unknown insurgent who planted the IED on the other side of the world. At that point, we have a very dangerous person in custody. We have potentially prevented what might otherwise be a mass-casualty event. And we have done it all in less than two hours.

This is a technology that law enforcement, nationally, would like to "roll out in every booking station," says Christopher Miles, Deputy Director, Standards Integration and Application Capability Development Support Group/Office of Standards at the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security.

And as I understand it, the U.S. Dept. of Defense would ultimately like to develop a rapid-DNA backpack-capability to be used by infantrymen, engineers and special operators around the world.

Not all American law-enforcement agencies have this rapid DNA technology in place.

We have integrated it here into our forensics lab at the Richland County Sheriff's Dept., and - as of this writing - we are currently the only law-enforcement agency in South Carolina with the technology in-house. I see that changing over the next five-to-10 years.  

I've been asked if rapid DNA will replace fingerprint technology which we've relied so heavily on for decades. The short answer is, no. Fingerprinting is still reliable, accurate, and virtually without cost. Beyond that, we have a huge fingerprint database from which to draw on, and which continues to serve us well.

Rapid DNA simply enhances our biometric forensics capability. It is absolutely proving its worth in solving mysterious crimes relegated to the RCSD Cold Case Unit, and it is only going to improve, expand to other agencies, ultimately become more portable, and in-the-long-run save lives.

Leon Lott _ thumb 2016Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff's Dept., one of the largest law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E's hit TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq - at the invitation of the Iraqi government - to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.    


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