DNA evidence testing on the rise

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Posted: Saturday, February 9, 2013 9:49 pm

Investigators with the Dothan Police Department get two to three ‘hits’ or matches of DNA samples sent off for testing each year.

Jon Thomas, the crime scene technician for the Dothan Police Department, said unlike TV shows and movies, crimes aren’t always solved right away with DNA or finger prints.

“People think everything is just like TV. On TV they have a perfect case every time,” Thomas said. “In real life we don’t always get the smoking gun.”

But Thomas said he’s seen the collection and submission of DNA samples for testing by local law enforcement increase over the last several years.

DNA testing has helped make arrests in several criminal cases, including one recalled by Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska. He said after a DNA match, police made an arrest in the brutal rape and murder of Marilyn Mitchell six years after it happened. He said Artez Hammonds, 42, remains on death row after a jury convicted him of capital murder.

Dothan police also made an arrest last year in a 30-year-old cold case homicide with the help of DNA evidence.

But Thomas said DNA is only one of several types of forensic evidence collected by law enforcement when they’re called to a crime scene.

Thomas defined forensic evidence as any type of evidence that can be tested or compared. He said forensic evidence includes latent prints, firearms and tool marks to DNA. He said latent prints are what they call a processed finger print.

“One out of 10 times I finger print I get a perfect print, I’d say probably one out of five times I get a usable print,” Thomas said.

He said it also included shoe impressions, handwriting analysis and trace evidence, which refers to hairs and fibers.

Thomas said Alabama doesn’t offer trace evidence analysis because of budget cuts. But if they have a case that meets the requirements they can send off trace evidence for analysis to the FBI for testing, which they’ve done a couple of times.

“Every single crime scene you go to is processed for forensic evidence,” Thomas said. “I have trained several officers on the street as patrol techs.”

Thomas said there is an average of two to four patrol techs on each patrol shift who are trained in basic crime scene investigation, photography, finger prints and basic evidence collections.

“If it’s a basic burglary they’ll process it and look for latent prints,” Thomas said.

As the department’s only crime scene technician Thomas gets called out to mostly burglaries, rapes and death investigations. He also responds to some fire investigations, robberies and child abuse investigations.

“One out of five criminal cases that we make an arrest on have some form of forensic evidence, and that can be as simple as surveillance video, to shoe prints to finger prints,” Thomas said.

 

DNA evidence

 

Thomas said he processed 258 crimes scenes in 2012. In 75 of those, Thomas got a DNA profile for a usable DNA sample to be tested.

“I’d say, probably ballpark, we had just over 100 cases that were sent off for DNA testing last year,” Thomas said.

Thomas said they send their samples to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for testing and analysis.

Thomas said the DNA testing process usually includes comparing an unknown DNA sample found at a crime scene to those already in CODIS, a convicted felon data base. He said they usually get two to three hits or matches a year, meaning their unknown sample came back as a match to a known person already in the database.

“I’d say we collect DNA, actually taking a sample for testing, in one out of 40 cases,” Thomas said. “Just because DNA comes back on a person, we still have follow ups, and investigators do interviews to make sure there’s no reason for that person’s DNA to be there.”

It’s even less often that police get a match in the national convicted felon data base at around one in a 100, he said.

According to the state Department of Forensic Sciences website, the COmbined DNA Index System (CODIS) database provides a system for storing, maintaining, tracking, and searching DNA specimen information. The website also cited the purpose for CODIS as a way to create a national information repository for law enforcement officers to exchange DNA information.

The website also said CODIS allows law enforcement agencies to cross-reference their DNA information with that of other agencies across the country. The “cross-reference” can produce DNA matches and link previous unrelated cases. The CODIS system is currently being used in 45 states, including about 90 percent of the U.S. population, the website said.

According to the department’s website, the department has identified 2,688 ‘hits’ between an unsolved case and an offender’s DNA profile as of August 2010. It also said those ‘hits’ have aided in more than 3,000 individual investigations, with the department averaging more than one ‘cold hit’ between an unsolved case and an offender per calendar day over the past three years.

Thomas said TV shows like CSI have created a misperception about how quickly crimes are solved, which includes how often they have finger prints and/or DNA. He said they also show unrealistic time frames for getting results in forensic analysis.

“Even though we’re getting more DNA matches, DNA is still not our number one forensic tool. A lot of times it’s other physical evidence that links the case like a shoe print or tool marks,” Thomas said. “A lot of it is still good old fashion police work.”

Thomas also said the range of time of submission for analysis to getting results has also improved from waiting nearly a year in 2009 or 2010 to just over 90 days most recently.

“Even with the way technology is going it’s just not going to happen in 15 minutes,” Thomas said.

 

Forensic arrests

 

Thomas also talked about the difference between physical evidence, which is forensic evidence, and circumstantial evidence. He defined circumstantial cases as ones that include evidence that’s not scientifically proven. He called circumstantial evidence much more common.

“A lot of cases are made on circumstantial evidence,” Thomas said. “We’d prefer to have forensic evidence, but circumstantial evidence is very useful too.”

Valeska said the development of DNA helps convict the guilty, but can also protect or free the innocent.

“It’s the single most important thing we have, forensic evidence,” Vakeska said. “We’ve won many a case on circumstantial evidence, but if you have forensic evidence like DNA, fingerprints or ballistics it’s just devastating to the defense.”

Valeska said the development of DNA evidence has led defense lawyers to argue consent in sexual assault cases involving DNA.

For example, a Dothan man prosecutors referred to as a serial rapist went to trial on multiple sexual assault charges claiming consent.

Both lawyers, Ben Freeman and Tom Brantley, represented Michael Handsford on separate but multiple sexual assault-related charges.

Freeman represented Handsford on a felony first-degree rape charge, for which he said the defense claimed consent at trial.

“DNA doesn’t mean there was anything forcible that occurred,” Freeman said. “We did not dispute there was interaction between the victim and the defendant, but we contended the interaction was consensual.”

The jury acquitted Handsford of that rape charge. But he was convicted of multiple other felony charges and sentenced to more than 500 years in prison.

Attorney Dustin Byrd said the prosecution doesn’t often have DNA as part of their evidence.

“It doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk conviction for prosecution,” Byrd said. “Just for an example in a rape case it may be consensual, and a lot of times that’s your argument.”

Byrd also represented a man charged with felony first-degree rape, who claimed consent in a case involving a DNA match by the prosecution. Court records show Dothan police arrested Willie Arthur Farmer Jr. in 2011 on a first-degree rape charge, and last year a jury acquitted him.

“In that particular case there was no doubt it was my client’s DNA,” Byrd said. “The issue in that case was it just wasn’t rape. It was consensual.”

Valeska questioned why the victim of a rape or sexual assault would report such a crime to authorities if the offense was a consensual act.

Freeman said it would be more difficult to claim consent in a DNA case involving a sexual assault when the offense is accompanied by other charges, such as burglary or robbery.

Brantley represented Handsford on several other charges, many of which were accompanied by a robbery or burglary offense.

Brantley called DNA evidence one of the toughest pieces of evidence to overcome.

“Of all the forensic evidence DNA, has got to be one of the most difficult to cross examine in my opinion,” Brantley said. “Probably the best way to attack DNA evidence is have your own DNA expert.”

But Brantley said DNA experts cost money. He said in court appointed cases they can request funds through the court to get an expert. In some of those cases he’s also researched the issue with DNA text books as trial preparation.

“DNA evidence is real technical,” Brantley said. “Thank goodness my undergraduate degree was in chemistry, and I understand the basic logic of that stuff. But you still have to match wits with the state’s DNA expert.”

Brantley said a good defense attorney should be able to come up with questions to ask the prosecution's DNA expert in an effort to get them to say they’re not sure about something.

Brantley recalled a first-degree rape case he defended about 10 years ago where DNA wasn’t found on his client, but in the bed sheets.

“My client claimed he never had intercourse with her. He was in the bed with her, but never had sex with her,” Brantley said. “We had a jury trial on it and the jury still found him guilty.”

Freeman said lawyers also typically question whether the DNA sample was collected properly.

“You basically have to ensure that the process was done correctly and not subject to contamination,” Freeman said.

With the use of forensic evidence, police have made arrests in a variety of crimes from burglary, to armed robbery to rape to capital murder.

One of the most recent arrests made by police came last week when, according to a Dothan police statement, police made a residential burglary arrest after fingerprints collected at the crime scene were later identified after analysis. Police said the prints allegedly belonged to 26-year-old Jonathan Piper, who was then charged with felony third-degree burglary.

Dothan police also arrested Laquadrea Haynes, 27, of Enterprise, and charged him with burglarizing a McDonald’s restaurant in Dothan.

According to a Dothan police statement, the charge stemmed from a DNA hit that led investigators to identify Haynes as the burglar involved in a break-in of the restaurant on Reeves Street on April 17, 2012.

Court records show Haynes’ felony third-degree burglary charge remains pending.

Police also made an arrest in an armed robbery with the use of DNA evidence.

Assistant Houston County District Attorney Kristen Shields said police linked Antonio Johnson to the crime after finding his DNA in some Homer Simpson pajamas. Johnson received a 35-year prison sentence last year for the conviction of a felony first-degree robbery charge.

Johnson was convicted of robbing a woman of her purse at gunpoint while wearing Homer Simpson pajamas. Police arrested Johnson in February 2011 for an offense that happened around 2 a.m. in the parking lot of the Westgate Inn on Dec. 6, 2009. She said a second man was involved in the robbery, but was never arrested.

Shields said police found the Homer Simpson pajamas hidden underneath a mattress in the motel room.

Attorney T.J. Haywood, who represented Johnson in court, said the prosecution’s DNA expert testified about how two DNA samples were found on the pajamas. Haywood said the defense argued the other person wore the pajamas during the robbery, not his client.

The first case Valeska remembered involving a conviction with DNA was the capital murder charge filed against Hammonds. Mitchell, the victim, was found dead in her Dothan townhouse in May 1990.

The case remained unsolved until 1996 when scientists at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences conducted DNA testing on samples recovered at the crime scene. The DNA testing resulted in a match to Hammonds, who was already serving an unrelated prison sentence for attempted murder. He was convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to death.

Dothan police also made an arrest last year in a 30-year-old cold case homicide after receiving a DNA ‘hit.’ Nathaniel Dennis, 59, faces a capital murder robbery charge in the shooting death of Ernest Russell Douglas at the Northview Amoco Station on Reeves Street in 1981.

Police investigators received results from the state Department of Forensic Sciences that indicated a match with Dennis’ DNA to evidence collected from the crime scene in the murder. His capital murder charge remains pending.

“People don’t quite understand how much goes into solving criminal cases. The perception is we catch everybody, we really don’t. Too many get away,” Valeska said. “I can tell you there’s not one thing that will solve a case in my opinion when you’re dealing with one piece of single evidence, but you give me a good seasoned detective, that case is going get solved.”

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