Beaufort County gets its own DNA lab, only the second in the state

May 4, 2010 

A nondescript, one-story, prefabricated building at the end of Industrial Village Road in Burton houses the newest phase of law enforcement for Beaufort County.

Inside the building, expensive microscopes used to analyze clothing fibers, hair and other forensic evidence sit atop long, black countertops. In another room, an ultraviolet light hangs from the ceiling to expose trace evidence undetectable by the human eye.

"We can analyze hair, semen, blood, any type of biological material in this lab," said Tim French, one of two DNA analysts hired by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to staff the new facility.

The Sheriff's Office opened the doors Tuesday to its new forensics lab, an $894,000 facility that Sheriff P.J. Tanner said is needed to reduce the time investigators spend waiting for DNA evidence to be processed by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. SLED's lab in Columbia analyzes DNA evidence submitted by every law enforcement agency in the state.

SLED's lab technicians prioritize which evidence is processed based on the severity of the crime, leaving some evidence unprocessed for months or even years, local authorities say. Last year, SLED officials reported a backlog of about 3,000 cases, 70 percent of which were DNA cases.

"I've seen cases where they can get the evidence back in two weeks and heard stories where they'll get back to you two years later to ask if you still want a case worked," said John Donahue, the lab's DNA technical leader, also from Charlotte.

"It's going to be a dramatically shorter turnaround," French said. "The normal turnaround for evidence will be about 30 days."

The lab will begin receiving evidence for actual cases by July, Donahue said.

French said the facility is similar to SLED's lab in Columbia but uses a profiling technique to identify semen that SLED doesn't have.

The lab is expected to cost about $350,000 a year to operate and will be available to all Beaufort County police agencies at no charge.

The lab must be accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors before its DNA samples can be entered into the federal DNA database, but its work can be used for local cases as soon as it's operational. Earning the national society's stamp of approval could take up to a year, according to officials.

Across the hall from the DNA lab, Renita Berry and Jennifer Mills, who run the agency's drug analysis lab, are still settling into their new surroundings. Their new lab is nearly double the size of the workspace the pair used to analyze suspected drugs for the Sheriff's Office at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Bluffton campus.

"We had less than 400 square feet, so it was a tight fit with only one of us working in there," said Berry, the lab's director. "With this new lab, we are able to offer so much more to the county."

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