Local police tired of waiting on DNA evidence seek their own labs

October 18, 2009 

  • The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office is scheduled to open its own $1 million DNA and drug lab by the end of the year, according to Sheriff P.J. Tanner. The lab to be put on county-owned land near S.C. 170 in Burton, will be able to process DNA evidence in less than 30 days, Tanner said. Sheriff's Office investigators now must rely on the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to process DNA evidence, but the average waiting time for a return is about a year because SLED is "overwhelmed and understaffed," he said. The new crime lab, with four employees, will help investigators and the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office with more than just a faster turnaround for DNA evidence. SLED currently accepts only a limited number of items per case for testing, Tanner said. When the Sheriff's Office opens its own lab, every item submitted will be tested -- that includes items not linked to high-profile cases, he said. "DNA can be used for solving littering and shoplifting," Tanner said, adding the lab will allow examination of "things we never submit for DNA now because SLED would've never done it." Tanner said SLED told him about the challenges of opening the new lab when he first explored the possibility two years ago. "It's not an easy process," he said. The lab will process DNA evidence for any crimes committed in Beaufort County, including those investigated by municipalities and the S.C. Highway Patrol, Tanner said. He said Beaufort County will cover the cost of testing the items, even for the other agencies. Tanner said he didn't know how much it costs to test various items, but said it wasn't a "sizable amount." "Every time you run a test, there's going to be a cost," he said. "(The lab) is not going to be abused or taken advantage of." The lab will process evidence for neighboring counties at a cost to them, Tanner said. -- Renee Dudley

CHARLESTON -- Tired of waiting months for the state crime lab to analyze DNA in pressing cases, a handful of police agencies across South Carolina, including in Beaufort County, are looking to start their own laboratories to break the logjam.

Having an in-house lab can put key evidence into the hands of investigators much faster, but experts warn that it's both costly and time-consuming to keep these facilities running.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he isn't dissuaded by the challenges. After two years of work, he hopes to open his department's $1 million DNA lab around the first of the year. He expects a 30-day turnaround for most cases, enabling investigators to quickly pinpoint or eliminate suspects before the trail grows cold. Creating a local DNA database also increases the chances for solving crimes, he said.

"Other than the beat cop on the street, there is no question DNA is the best and most efficient tool law enforcement has," he said.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division handles the bulk of DNA analysis in criminal cases, but its lab is saddled with a backlog of some 3,000 cases. SLED fast-tracks evidence in high-priority, violent crimes, but the typical case has a turnaround time of three months or longer, SLED officials said.

The Richland County Sheriff's Office has the only other DNA crime lab in operation. Greenville County, like Beaufort County, is in the process of starting a lab. Charleston, Lexington and York counties are eager to do the same, but DNA labs are expensive to start up, and money is tough to come by.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said it took his agency about five years and $300,000 to get his lab fully operational. Getting space and equipment proved easier than finding trained and certified DNA analysts who could do the work and testify in court, he said.

Still, Lott said the expense was worth it. His DNA lab made headlines three years ago when it helped pinpoint a serial rapist preying on women in the Midlands. Genetic evidence revealed a suspect in multiple assaults who "wasn't even on our radar at the time," he said.

Since then, deputies collect samples in as many cases as possible, using DNA to solve everything from homicides and rapes to car thefts and simple cases of vandalism, Lott said. The smaller cases might not even make it in the door of SLED's lab because it is so inundated with more pressing crimes, he said.

"This has been well worth the investment," Lott said. "We're solving cases now we never would have solved without having our own forensics lab -- old cases and new cases. It's like Christmas time in investigations."

Charleston police recently received a $299,201 federal grant to help solve cold-case homicides and rapes, and they will probably send some of the DNA evidence to Richland County's DNA lab for processing. Police already are working with the Marshal University Forensic Science Center in West Virginia on a federally funded project that uses DNA to solve burglaries, car break-ins and other property crimes.

Charleston County authorities would love to have their own lab for such endeavors, but so far they have been unable to get such a project off the ground.

In 2005, former Charleston County Coroner Susan Chewning led an effort to establish a regional DNA testing lab in the Lowcountry. Organizers secured funding, but the project stumbled when the host agency, the Carolina Medical Assessment Center, went out of business.

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office picked up the ball and applied for a $300,000 federal grant last year to set up a regional DNA lab. Funding didn't come through, however, and sheriff's officials are still trying to find a way to pay for the project.

York and Lexington counties had hoped federal stimulus money might help with DNA labs they want, but there wasn't enough funding to go around.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant was frustrated by losing out, having seen what DNA can do for cases. DNA found on a pen that a robber touched helped put away a bandit who had shot four people in a string of holdups in his county. In another case, deputies nabbed two bank robbers from a sample of sweat the men left behind in disposable Tyvek suits they wore, he said.

Bryant said he has high regard for SLED's lab but he can't afford to wait six months to a year for them to analyze DNA from pressing cases like burglaries.

"How many houses is that bad guy going to break into in the next year while we're waiting for that analysis to come back?" Bryant asked. "If I had my own lab, I'm going to be putting somebody's butt in jail next week."

While Bryant estimates it would cost $550,000 to start his own lab, experts caution about the hurdles that lie ahead, such as attaining accreditation and making sure training and equipment keeps pace with technological advances.

"It's very complex, and it's expensive to do," said Maj. Todd Hughey, director of SLED's Forensic Services lab.

Pete Marone, director of Virginia's crime lab and chairman of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, said he tells local departments that it would be more cost-effective to underwrite positions at larger labs and have those people work exclusively on local cases.

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