Sheriff gets ready to open DNA lab

In less than two months, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office will become the second law enforcement agency in the state to have its own forensics lab, Sheriff P.J. Tanner says.

Constructions crews are finishing the interior of the 4,000-square-foot facility in the Beaufort Industrial Village, Tanner said. The building will house the agency's DNA, drug and arson lab.

"They are finishing up some of the internal stuff, like countertops and a few other things, but it's coming along nicely," Tanner said. "We're in pretty good shape. This is something we've worked a long time on, so we're pretty excited about it. I feel safe in saying it will be operational in 60 days or less."

Once opened, the Sheriff's Office and the Lexington County Sheriff's Office will be the only two local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina able to analyze DNA and other forensic evidence.

Tanner pushed to open the lab, which carries an $894,611 price tag, to dramatically reduce the time investigators spend waiting for DNA evidence to be processed by the State Law Enforcement Division lab in Columbia. The lab analyzes DNA evidence submitted by every law enforcement agency in the state.

SLED's lab must 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.

"This will definitely expedite the analysis of all forensic evidence collected by law enforcement agencies throughout Beaufort County," Tanner said. "We'll be able to process evidence in 30 days or less."

The lab, expected to cost about $350,000 a year to operate, will be staffed by one lab technician and two DNA analysts, and will be available to all Beaufort County police agencies at no charge.

After it's operational, 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. Earning that stamp of approval could take up to a year, according to officials.