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Buried in DNA

By Megan Kinneyn | Apr. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2007

Buried in DNA

Cold-case units have solved some very highly publicized crimes in recent years. Less publicized, though, are the problems these units have run into. By Susan E. Davis

By Susan E. Davis
      Edited by Martin Lasden
      Despite hype about using DNA to break unsolved crimes, cold-case units face slow going.
      When it comes to solving cold homicide cases, "things aren't always what they seem to be," says Rock Harmon, a deputy district attorney for Alameda County. "What you read in the newspaper is not the tip of the iceberg, it's the whole iceberg."
      Such stories make for dramatic reading, of course. Just last Decem-ber, for example, Hayward police announced that they had used DNA evidence collected from a 1991 crime scene where a 24-year-old homeless woman was sexually assaulted and murdered. The DNA, which was found on the victim's body in the parking lot of a homeless shelter, had been around for 15 years, but advances in forensic science finally allowed investigators to link it to Duane Smith. Smith, 45, was serving a five-year sentence at Avenal State Prison for another sex crime and had been scheduled for release later this year.
      But for all the hype?and the proliferation of cold-case units throughout the state?Harmon says it's still extremely rare for DAs, police officers, and crime labs to work together on a cold case from start to finish. And that can be a problem. According to Harmon, the cold-case "hit rate"?the percentage of cases in which an uploaded evidence profile matches that of an offender already in the database?is less than 18 percent in California. And not all of those matches result in convictions.
      "We have close to 4,000 cold hits, but it's unknown how many of those have resulted in conviction," Harmon says. "What happened in those cases that didn't result in convictions?" To find out, last June the California District Attorney's Association, in conjunction with the state's Department of Justice, launched an initiative called the Cold Hit Outcomes Project.
      In the meantime, the state?like the entire country?suffers from a huge backlog of unprocessed DNA samples. In fact, California had an estimated 175,000 DNA samples as of January that had not been registered with the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national database developed through the collaboration of local, state, and federal officials.
      "We don't have enough personnel to [process the samples] in-house," says Detective Rick Jackson, who has been working with LAPD's cold-crime unit since its inception in 2001. "And it gets very expensive to have outside labs do the work for us."
      To make matters worse, many states have expanded the categories of offenders to be profiled, resulting in an even bigger backlog of samples that need to be collected and entered. Proposition 69, passed by California voters in 2004, mandated that starting in 2009, anyone convicted for any felony?even nonviolent ones?must give a DNA sample, from which a profile will be created and uploaded to CODIS. That's potentially good news for criminal justice, but it will increase the workload substantially.
      Still, none of this diminishes the sense of triumph that investigators feel when a perpetrator is caught. "The public loves these stories, because they combine science and true crime?plus people like to see criminals held accountable," says Jackson. "But if you talk to a family member of a [homicide] victim, you understand the true value of solving cold cases. It doesn't bring the victim back, but it gives the survivors the answers they need to move on."

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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