DNA analysis is often considered one of the most powerful tools available to help solve crimes. While the overall effect DNA can have on criminal investigations is undeniable, it is likely even more impactful to the victims whose lives are forever changed by the acts of another person. The most recognized use for DNA is for comparison purposes. These comparisons can aid in identifying suspects, which can simultaneously provide answers for the victims of crimes. Additionally, such comparisons can also exclude individuals as suspects during an investigation or exonerate those who have been incarcerated for a crime they did not commit.
Utilizing all tools available to solve cases is critical to reducing crime and promoting safer communities while bringing closure to victims and their families. The more the forensic community can do to support criminal investigations, the better opportunity we have to prevent crime – and prevent tomorrow’s victims.
Preventing Tomorrow’s Victim – Impact of DNA Testing
Since the Debbie Smith Act was originally passed in 2004, approximately $1 billion has been appropriated to provide funding for DNA testing across the country. More recently, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has introduced the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) where more than $200 million has been distributed resulting in the identification of more than 100,000 previously untested sexual assault kits since 2015. Additionally, since 2013, 26 states have passed bills which allocate state funds towards ending the backlog of untested sexual assault kits. Combined, these states have since allocated more than $100 million towards the goal of eliminating the backlog and have, so far, tested nearly 150,000 kits.
The impact of these combined efforts has been staggering. DNA has had a significant impact to the world we live in. DNA results provide investigative information to law enforcement in more than 500,000 cases ranging from property crimes to violent crimes such as sexual assault and homicide.¹ DNA has also been used to identify unknown victims of homicides, provide closure to families of loved ones from mass disasters, and helped uncover past tragedies from international conflicts. Just as important, DNA has been used to exclude suspects and exonerate the innocent resulting in freedom for the wrongfully convicted – sometimes years after a case has been “closed”.
Driven by the demand and impact that DNA analysis has on criminal cases, case backlogs of both older and current cases continue to build in crime laboratories across the country. Despite the spotlight on the importance of timely forensic testing results, there are many cases that still are not getting the attention required. These include more than 400,000² gun crimes occurring in the United States annually and an estimated 250,000 cold cases that are currently unsolved in the United States.
The high crime rates combined with access to more sensitive DNA testing methods has significantly increased demand for DNA analysis and the results have been astounding. The ability to test more cases, including those previously thought to be unsolvable, and test them quicker aids investigators in solving more cases sooner, all of which contributes towards the goal of preventing tomorrow’s victim.
Preventing Tomorrow’s Victim - Testing Sexual Assault Kits
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted.³ The effect of invasive sexual assault examinations combined with the frustration of untested exam kits plagues victims and their families daily. It has also been shown that approximately 50% of rape suspects will be released while awaiting trial and 7% will be arrested for committing another crime – before their case is adjudicated. Additionally, it has been shown that many suspected sexual assault perpetrators have committed previous crimes. Statistics show that 37% have at least one prior felony, including 10% that have five or more felonies.⁴
Through the collective mission of advocates, legislators, and the forensic community, numerous backlogs have been identified and many have been cleared. This has led to critical legislation aimed at addressing this situation and working towards preventing backlogs from occurring again. Efforts to clear backlogs across the country have already identified serial rapists and violent criminals. In three cities, Cleveland, Detroit, and Memphis more than 1,320 suspected serial rapists were identified as a result of testing the cities’ backlogged rape kits. In Wayne County, Michigan, more than 800 potential serial sex offenders were identified and linked to crimes committed in 40 states and Washington, D.C.⁵
In Massachusetts, one of the more remarkable pieces of legislation requires the testing of every sexual assault kit within 30-days of receipt from local law enforcement. The state of Massachusetts has made an incredible effort to meet the requirements of the legislation. They have done this through evaluating workflows within the laboratory, increasing staff, and partnering with Bode Technology. Through the Bode ASAP program, kits were sent to Bode weekly, and results were available within 2-weeks – ensuring enough time for review and CODIS upload to meet the mandated 30-day testing requirement. By meeting this demanding turnaround time, the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory demonstrated their commitment to their mission, as well as an understanding of the importance of testing these cases quickly for the survivor, the case itself and the potential to prevent future crimes.
Preventing Tomorrow’s Victim – Lawfully Owed DNA
CODIS is one of the most powerful law enforcement tools created. Every day there are new CODIS hits that provide investigators with new information to continue working to solve cases. The simplest and most cost-effective way to maximize the effectiveness of the database is to ensure that a DNA sample is collected from every qualifying individual. The current number of lawfully owed DNA samples is incredible. More than 100,000 offenders have been identified as owing DNA samples required by their state laws.⁶ This published data point represents only a handful of counties and states, with additional reports of tens of thousands of legally owed DNA samples in other jurisdictions.
To maximize the impact of clearing sexual assault backlogs, the BJA has created a new grant and committed over $15M to collect lawfully owed DNA samples across the country. Lawfully owed DNA is defined as a DNA sample from a qualifying offender who should have had their sample in CODIS, but from whom a sample has never been collected or submitted to a lab for testing. Ensuring these samples are collected, analyzed and uploaded to CODIS is a key element to increasing the solvability of cases and is a step towards comprehensive sexual assault investigation reform.
Lawfully owed DNA may very well be the next frontier of backlogs which need to be identified and cleared; however, this area provides a set of new challenges. Investigators are now tasked with locating and collecting DNA from thousands of individuals. New programs such as the Forensic Investigative Services from Bode Technology, allow investigators to quickly identify an individual’s location and immediately create booking alerts. Forensic Investigative Services allows for the quick prioritization of collections and significantly reduces administrative time spent by investigators.
Preventing Tomorrow’s Victim – Forensic Genealogy
The development of forensic genealogy has demonstrated how new approaches to DNA testing can solve cases that have long gone cold. Since the identification of Joseph DeAngelo as a suspect in the Golden State Killer case, hundreds of cases across the country have been reopened ranging from the identification of unknown victims, to identifying suspects in rape cases and solving cold case homicides. Sometimes as these cases are investigated, a cold case leads to information in new cases, and demonstrates how these types of investigations can make our streets safer today and possibly prevent tomorrow’s victim.
Bode Technology has put together a comprehensive Forensic Genealogy Service which includes a thorough case review, DNA extraction, SNP Testing/ Genome Sequencing, investigative genealogy services and confirmation sample testing with extensive controls in-line with the Department of Justice’s Interim Guidelines for Best Practices.
Case Study - Serial Killer – Portland, Oregon
One of the most chilling examples of how working cold cases can solve active cases – and potentially prevent future crimes was uncovered out of Portland. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) had never given up on solving the disappearance of Mark Dribin and reached out to Bode for assistance. Mr. Dribin was never seen again after calling out of work in July 1999. Investigators went to his house a few days after he went missing and discovered Mr. Dribin’s blood throughout the house. A retained a cigarette butt left at the house assumed to be from a suspect related to his disappearance did not generate any CODIS leads, and the investigation went cold. However, when the agency reached out to Bode to perform forensic genealogy on the case, the investigation was elevated to a new level.
Bode and the PPB utilized forensic genealogy methods and partnered to identify Christopher Louvrien as a potential suspect. After an investigation led to the arrest of Louvrien in May 2020, they searched his property where they discovered the dismembered remains of another victim, Kenneth Griffin, which were being stored in a shed. Investigations determined that Mr. Griffin was killed on the property in February 2020, more than 20 years after the disappearance of Mark Dribin and just three months before Louvrein was identified as a suspect in Mr. Dribin’s case. While the investigation(s) is ongoing, there are indications that there may be other remains present on the property.
The importance in providing investigative information as soon as possible is clear. While knowing the identity of this suspect sooner could have potentially saved lives, it’s critical to realize that thanks to advancements in forensic technologies and the diligence of the PPB investigators, future lives may be saved by bringing this perpetrator to justice.
Preventing Tomorrow’s Victim – Exonerating the Innocent
When Kirk Bloodsworth became the first American exonerated as a result of DNA testing in 1993, it became clear that there was another type of victim that could benefit from advancements in DNA– those wrongfully imprisoned. Thanks to the hard work of dedicated attorneys, more than 350 wrongfully imprisoned victims have been exonerated through DNA.⁷ Bode has processed more than 100 post-conviction cases in the past two years alone.
In many of these cases, DNA was not originally utilized. Additionally, the science of forensic DNA continues to evolve. Through the expansion of STR kits, DNA testing has become more sensitive, and the power of discrimination has increased. The introduction of powerful software tools such as STRmix assists in the interpretation of complex mixtures once deemed unsuitable for comparison. The advancement of rapid DNA technology puts DNA directly in the hands of investigators and can now provide answers within 90 minutes. Many of these tools may not have been available at the time of conviction and with continued funding support from the BJA and the expansion of innocence projects and Conviction Integrity programs, it is expected that efforts on wrongfully convicted will continue to increase.
Bode X-traction technology enables DNA recovery from spent shell casings and rootless hairs. Advanced sampling methods developed from the ATF⁸ combined with technology developed at Bode enable analysts to obtain ~10 X more DNA from spent shell casings and obtain useable nuclear DNA profiles from a single hair.
Preventing Tomorrow’s Victim
DNA technology will continue to be at the forefront of criminal investigations as the gold standard of identification. This is attributed to the strength of the science, continued advancements in technology and the rigorous quality standards controlling the technology.
While backlogs of cases throughout the country are being eliminated and current cases are tested faster, the expectation and demand for forensic DNA analysis continues to rise. Advanced DNA technologies such as rapid DNA and forensic genealogy are now more accessible with the assistance of funding programs and have proven to be an essential key to solving crimes faster, identifying the unknown and helping to solve decades old cold cases.
With the support of the public, DNA analysts and dedicated investigators, we will continue to work tirelessly to solve cases through DNA – and prevent tomorrow’s victim.
- Gun Crimes in America (2019, NIJ).
- Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2019 (2020).
- Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2009 (2013).
- Todd W. Bille*, Glenn Fahrig, Steven M. Weitz, Greg A. Peiffer. An improved process for the collection and DNA analysis of fired cartridge cases. Forensic Science International: Genetics, 46 (2020 102238. United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, National Laboratory Center).