Crime lab in Baltimore County celebrates 150th DNA hit
10/21/2010
Baltimore Sun - Online

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Eight years after finding its first DNA match in an evidence database in 2002, Baltimore County police, elected officials and laboratory analysts gathered yesterday to mark the 150th such match for the county's crime laboratory.

And while the extraction and testing process for genetic material is not as high-tech as popular crime dramas make it seem — biology lab supervisor Lynnda T. Watson said it can take about two months to properly analyze a single DNA sample — officials pointed to DNA testing as a powerful tool in their arsenal.

"We're limited by the current technology," Watson said. "The technology part of it hasn't advanced far enough for us to do the 'lab on a chip' that you see on 'CSI' and the other shows."

The 150th DNA match helped identify a possible suspect in a Towson liquor store robbery, police said. To date, said Lt. Robert McCullough, the county police spokesman, the department has had 154 hits in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the national database that aggregates evidence from state and local labs.

McCullough said not every match necessarily leads to an arrest in a case — many simply help establish links between cases previously thought to be unrelated.

The match was celebrated by County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who attributed a historic low in the county crime rate in part to the use of DNA evidence.

"Technology and science have played a role in reducing crime," Kamenetz said. "DNA analysis has allowed law enforcement at all levels to solve previously unsolvable crimes."

The milestone comes as state leaders are promoting the ever-greater use of DNA and other forensic evidence to solve tough cases. This month, the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention announced more than $500,000 in federal grants to local forensic laboratories, though much of it went to analyzing fingerprint evidence.

Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said over the past two years his agency has focused on eliminating the state's backlog in collecting DNA samples from prisoners, which is required by Maryland law. And a state law passed in 2009, similar to laws in at least 20 other states, requires that people arrested for certain violent crimes be tested and their DNA added to the evidence database.

The 2009 law was criticized by civil liberties advocates, who said it would violate the privacy rights of those arrested, many of whom could turn out to be innocent.

As the amount of evidence entered into the nationwide DNA database grows larger, however, investigators are finding more matches, Watson said. When the database was first used by county investigators in 2002, she said, they got a few matches per month. Now it's not unusual to get a few dozen matches each month.

"The more profiles you're putting in, the more hits you're going to get," Watson said.

The usual DNA analysis process, which includes extraction of the genetic material, the DNA's amplification, the compilation of a profile and writing a report, can take several weeks, Watson said. But in an emergency situation — if there was a serial rapist on the loose, for instance — the lab could process a sample in four days.

At the moment, the crime lab is processing some decades-old cases that police believe might be solved using DNA evidence. Watson said Baltimore County is lucky because the evidence from the older cases is intact and can be effectively analyzed.

"We've been very fortunate in finding that a) it still exists and b) it's in good condition," Watson said.