2-year-old Sheriff's forensics lab now part of FBI network of criminal DNA

astice@islandpacket.comApril 1, 2012 

For criminals, making a clean getaway in Beaufort County is not as easy as it used to be.

Thanks to a new resource at the Sheriff's Office forensics lab, a strand of hair, a drop of blood or a fingerprint on a light switch can dash the perfect crime. Incriminating DNA collected from crime scenes can now be entered in a national FBI database, which the forensics lab joined last month.

Since then, lab analysts have been "swamped" with evidence from unsolved crimes from the Sheriff's Office and other county law enforcement agencies, lab director Renita Berry said.Before joining the network, the lab would only process samples from suspects whose identities were already known.

It was a lengthy process for the lab to become part of the network after receiving its accreditation in June 2011, but it's already a "success story," Berry said.

"Sometimes you may find out who committed a crime because there's an earlier DNA profile of a suspect," Berry said. "Based on what hits you get when you enter the sample, you can tell who he is."

Lab technical leader John Donahue said more than 100 DNA profiles from the past year have been entered into the database, and about 30 of those were samples from unsolved crimes.

Half of the unknown samples showed matches right away, he said. Some pointed to crimes committed elsewhere in the state, and some pointed to suspects from other states who might not have attracted investigators' suspicion.

The analysts, however, often don't know what becomes of the leads their work can generate for investigators. Once the sample is processed and passed on to law enforcement officials, they don't keep tabs on the case unless called upon to testify in court, Donahue said.

14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone compared the addition of the FBI network to the creation of a national fingerprint database decades ago.

"When agencies started hooking up to the national fingerprint database, they almost immediately started breaking cases that had been sitting that they didn't have any leads on," Stone said. "One of the benefits of science is that it's objective."

When the Sheriff's Office forensics lab opened in May 2010, it was only the second of its kind in the state. Now there are more than a dozen, Berry said.

Of those, the Beaufort lab is one of only three county labs that has been accredited -- a requirement before labs are allowed to join the FBI's criminal DNA database, said South Carolina Law Enforcement Division forensics lab director Maj. Todd Hughey.

The accreditation means the lab meets national standards for "good quality work," Hughey said.

The lab employs five and costs about $580,000 to operate each year. Stone said he expects the benefits of the new resource soon will become apparent in prosecutions.

"The more information law enforcement has, the better for the criminal justice system," Stone said. "The science itself is almost always a crucial part of every case I try, in particular DNA."

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content:

Charges dismissed against Bluffton man in business break-in, Dec. 6, 2011

Burton man gets 20 years for hammer attack, Dec. 16, 2010

Beaufort County gets its own DNA lab, only second in the state, May 4, 2010

Local police tired of waiting on DNA evidence seek their own labs, Oct. 18, 2009

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