Monday, June 15, 2009

Tripping down Halsted St to study DNA

by Michael Dymmoch

On June 10th, the Illinois Academy of Criminology (IAC) held its Spring Institute at UIC. The program was on DNA, a subject dear to the hearts of many crime writers. Since the round-trip bus fare was less than half the parking fee, I let the CTA be my chauffeur.

I don’t do nothing well, so when I couldn’t see the # 65 bus coming down Grand Avenue, I started walking toward the Halsted Street bus stop. You always know when you do that, the bus will fly past you mid-block. Which is just what happened. But the walk gave me the chance to note a few interesting things along the way.

The view from the bridge over the Chicago River:
This could save your hero’s life if he/she fell/was pushed into the river. Or it could snag a corpse.

A pair of like-new shoes abandoned against the bridge railing:

← (shoes)

There’s a story there. Or at least a clue.

And who knows what might occur at the Funky Buddha Lounge?

As I expected, the #65 bus passed me midway between home and Halsted, but the #8 Halsted bus was waiting when I arrived at the stop.

Halsted is an interesting street. Farther North, it winds through Cabrini Green, Yuppie Lincoln Park and Guppie Lake View. From Grand south, it transects Greek Town, crosses I-290 and the Blue Line, and passes through the UIC campus on its way toward the South Side. You could do a series set just on Halsted, or at least Winesburg Ohio collection of shorts.

Spring Institute speakers Garry Bombard, Ph.D., Detective James Hennigan, retired CPD Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, ASA Mark Ertler, and Cecelia Doyle, ILSPCL.

The DNA seminar was hosted by former CPD Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, who told the audience that the FBI lab started in an old lounge in 1932 with a sink, a microscope and a machine for examining the threading in gun barrels. Today, the lab at Quantico VA employs more than 600 people and hosts the National DNA Index System (CODEX), the world’s largest repository of DNA samples. (Visitors are usually underwhelmed by the small room in which CODEX resides, with it’s banks of interconnected computers.) In 2002, the FBI processed 5,000 DNA samples per year. By 2010, they expect to process 90,000 per month.

Mark Ertler, the Assistant States Attorney who supervises Cook County’s DNA review, explained that DNA is involved in three areas of law enforcement. In investigations, it is especially useful in solving cold cases. In addition to exonerating persons wrongfully convicted of crimes, evidence collected before DNA analysis came into widespread use is now being tested and found to implicate offenders arrested for subsequent crimes.

DNA isn’t always the answer. During trials, DNA is useful if available, but “If you don’t have DNA in an assault case, you’d better be able to explain why.” The “CSI effect” is also a problem for prosecutors—jurors expect to hear DNA testimony. There is also a developing area of law connected with DNA databases. In Illinois, all convicted felons are required to submit DNA samples to CODIS, but if an individual’s DNA is in CODIS, will it prejudice the jury? Some prosecutors tell jurors the defendant’s DNA was found in a database without mentioning which database, allowing jurors to assume the reference is to CODIS. Defense attorneys are increasingly asking that DNA evidence be tested by their own labs or with a defense expert present. The former demand raises chain of custody issues, the latter shuts down the state lab for the time the independent expert observes. (For privacy reasons, no other testing can be done while outsiders are present.) Defendants’ rights are also a consideration when DNA testing comes up. A bill stalled in the Illinois legislature would require DNA testing of everyone arrested for a felony; some states have already enacted such laws. But since citizens are considered innocent until proven guilty, this raises constitutional and privacy concerns. In Illinois, the crime lab works for law enforcement agencies, but the question could be raised to whom does the evidence belong?

The latest hot uses of DNA in forensics are mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and Y-STR DNA, which is only contributed by the male chromosome and, consequently, is especially useful for solving rapes. In all DNA cases, the Frye test applies—a court must determine of the test is generally accepted in scientific communities. Y-STR testing has passed in Illinois.

Other issues that come up in DNA testimony are the use of abandoned DNA—DNA left somewhere by a suspect and not given to law enforcers voluntarily or by court order; Red herrings—DNA left at a scene earlier by someone not involved with the case; and opinion testimony by non-experts—testimony by managers of companies to which DNA testing was outsourced. These individuals may have supervised the testing but didn’t perform the tests themselves. Their testimony would seem to be unconstitutional, since defendants are guaranteed the right to cross-examine witnesses. Whoever testifies, outsourcing tests to a private lab is problematic because it may cost up to $2,000 per occurrence for the witness to testify.

Cecelia Doyle, Chief of the biochemistry Section or the Illinois State Police Crime Lab (ILSPCL), explained the difference between real life and TV with respect to DNA testing. In reality, DNA cannot “prove” a defendant guilty. DNA evidence can link a victim to a suspect or crime scene; a suspect to a victim; or two separate crime scenes to each other. It’s up to the prosecution to “prove” the defendant’s guilt.

Evidence comes to the lab as a “biology case” and is first examined to determine if it is likely to yield DNA. About 60% of items become DNA cases. Turnaround time for processing is affected by a number of factors: the number of samples; mixtures vs. straight profiles; the amount of sample provided. Rush/high priority cases (heater cases in CPD cop speak) can take two to three weeks for a small case (two samples + two standards). If the sample size is limited, the case may take two to three weeks. If numerous samples and standards are involved, the whole process will take longer. Every case is peer reviewed. Higher priority cases are supervisor reviewed. Very high priority cases are reviewed by special experts. All tests are done using clean techniques. Unlike on CSI, ILSPCL researchers wear gloves whenever they are in the lab. When processing evidence, they wear gloves, masks, and clean lab coats with sleeve covers. VISITORS ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE LAB. ILSPCL has a ”scrape-down room” for examining clothes and bedding for body fluids.

Ms. Doyle reported that CODIS has state, local and National levels (ENDIS), which receive DNA data from 170 labs in 25 countries. The ILSPCL has its own case work data base. Other data bases to which law enforcement may refer are the convicted offender database (everyone convicted of a violent felony in IL); the missing persons database; the unidentified human remains database; the biological relatives of missing persons database; and (in some states) arrestees databases. CODIS hits are not part of the chain of evidence, so if someone in CODIS is implicated in a crime, a new sample must be collected from the individual with a chain of custody maintained. DNA casework is now automated; biological examinations cannot be. ILSPCL is working toward a 30 day turnaround for both.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (MN BCA) does mtDNA testing (also used for paternity tests) where necessary, because they have the set-up for it. MtDNA testing is very labor intensive.

Crime lab quality assurance standards are set by the National Academy of Sciences. ILSPCL is audited annually for quality of data, integrity of testing results and interpretation, and qualifications of personnel. Before they are allowed to work on their own, employees must have a 4-year physical science degree; a clean life style (and pass drug and background tests); must pass a lie detector test; have one to three years of formal training; and a period of supervised casework analysis.

[Other IAC Spring Institute speakers were CPD cold case detective, James Hennigan, and Garry Bombard, Ph.D., Chief of forensics Studies at Loyola University about which more in a later blog.]


Barbara D'Amato said...

Fascinating stuff, Micahel. Thank you!

Sara Paretsky said...

Michael, this is a lot to digest--how very gracious of you to take the time to share all you learned with us!

Dana King said...

Well done, Michael. Lots of good detail that can help a story and provide background for a writer.

Halsted is a fascinating street for all of the reasons you mention. I remember taking a (daylight) trip to 55th and Halsted to check out a location I wanted to use in a story once. Caged up store fronts and razor wire around a cell tower. Driving a block away brought me to a residential area. Quite an education for a small tonw boy still learning about a big city.

Chapman said...

"In reality, DNA cannot “prove” a defendant guilty. DNA evidence can link a victim to a suspect or crime scene; a suspect to a victim; or two separate crime scenes to each other. It’s up to the prosecution to “prove” the defendant’s guilt." Thank you, Cecelia! This brings to mind one of my own pet peeves. I believe that visual comparisons of suspect and standard hairs can be used to give leads to investigators but should not be used in court. You can distinguish animal hair, head vs body hair, and sometimes race. Despite the long history of misuse of this procedure by forensic scientists, the most you can reasonably say about a physical comparison of two hairs is that they share a few similar characteristics. You can never say that the hairs are a match or that, based on a visual comparison, a hair came from a specific individual. And there are no valid statistics from which to infer a range of probability. Hairs with a follicular root attached should be analyzed for mitochondrial DNA. Okay, stepping down from my soap box. Sorry.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Thank you all for your support. I confess to watching CSI from time to time, but like Cecelia and the cops, I watch it as SF or a comedy.

I asked at the seminar how Juan Rivera could have been convicted (for the third time) of the rape/murder of Holly Staker (Waukegan, 1992) even though DNA evidence excluded him. I never got an answer. According to Jeff Long of the Chicago Tribune, Rivera has an IQ of 79. I guess they excluded everyone from the third jury who knew anything about DNA or psychology or what constitutes a reasonable doubt.