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New system provides faster results for DNA tests


It used to take months for Sonoma County detectives to receive test results from DNA samples collected during examinations of rape victims.

But Sonoma County is one of six counties in the state benefitting from a pilot program at a DNA laboratory in Richmond that uses a new method to extract and analyze DNA samples. Since 2011, it has reduced the turnaround time to an average of 15 business days.

This month, sexual assault victims in Lake County began having access to the swift analysis — called the Rapid DNA Service.

"It's going to be incredible, the turnaround," said Crystal Martin, child abuse and sexual assault advocate with the Lake County District Attorney's Office Victim-Witness Division.

The state launched the pilot program in 2011 in Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Solano counties and has since included Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, said Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice. Lake County joined this month and the state is evaluating expansion into Mendocino, Del Norte and Butte counties.

The program has fundamentally changed how DNA evidence is handled in sexual assault examinations in the six counties.

Evidence from every sexual assault victim who undergoes an exam in the six counties is immediately sent to the state lab. Previously, police did not submit samples from all cases. Samples that were deemed critical were sometimes sent to a local lab first, slowing the analysis.

Since Sonoma County joined the program, state criminalists have been able to extract 50 DNA profiles from 146 sexual assault exams in Sonoma County. Twenty-four have been linked to suspects through CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, a searchable database of more than 2.1 million DNA profiles submitted in California. Nationally, the database contains the DNA profiles of more than 10.4 million offenders.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said that 14 local convictions since 2011 were aided by "hits" in the DNA database.

"In cases of this nature, the sooner you can bring offenders to justice the better," Ravitch said.

The process starts at a hospital during the sexual assault examination.

Trained nurses, part of a county's Sexual Assault Response Team, take three swabs of evidence from a victim, as well as a swab of the victim's cheek. The samples are sent in a priority mail envelope addressed to the California Department of Justice Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory in Richmond.

These samples are taken as part of a thorough forensic examination, often called a "rape kit," that includes photographs and other evidence that police gather in their investigations, said Gary Sims, director and DNA technical leader of the Bashinski lab.

The program has doubled the number of sexual assault cases submitted to the Richmond lab.

"In the past there was much more emphasis on working cases that were going to go to court," Sims said. "People have come to realize there is a tremendous resource in the database."

At the state lab in Richmond, 10 criminalists analyzed more than 2,400 samples of DNA casework from January through July of this year in the refurbished former offices of Pixar Animation Studios.

In a white coat, mask and gloves and surrounded by blinking machines, senior criminalist Amy Rojas poured a clear buffer liquid into a dish last week as she prepped a genetic analyzer instrument. The task is one phase of a multi-step process that transforms genetic material collected on an evidence swab into a DNA profile that is then uploaded into the CODIS databank.

Once the DNA information is uploaded, the computer searches for matches against DNA profiles collected from convicted offenders, people arrested for felonies and other evidence. Since 2009, DNA samples are routinely collected from every person arrested on suspicion of a felony in California.

Greater automation and a new chemical process has enabled scientists to extract DNA from a swab in just six hours, compared to two days using the previous technology, Rojas said. And they can now extract DNA from about a dozen samples at a time, more than twice the number previously.

"Every case is analyzed, no matter what," Rojas said. "In a way it becomes a hyper-screening program to make sure we have any evidence possible and direct investigations from there on."

While the new technology has beefed up California's databank of DNA profiles, it has not yet cracked a case in Santa Rosa, local investigators said.

Part of the reason is most rape victims can immediately identify the suspect and the case hinges upon whether the act was consensual, said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. John Snetsinger, who ran the department's sexual assault investigations team from about 2007 to 2012. Who-done-it cases are rare, he said.

But local police departments have benefitted from the streamlining of evidence collection, which previously took more people and much more time, said Snetsinger, a current board member of Sonoma County's sexual assault crisis center Verity.

Snetsinger said he expects future investigations will benefit from a robust CODIS database that includes local sexual assault evidence.

"All you have to do is benefit a couple of cases for it to be worth it," Snetsinger said.

Ravitch said that DNA has radically changed the way the identification of a suspect is handled in a criminal case because "personal observation is always subject to question."

That is most clear in sexual assault cases involving children, she said.

"Children have a greater difficulty in articulating what has happened to them, particularly if it's someone who is not well-known to them," Ravitch said.

The program has created new efficiencies in evidence processing on the local and state levels that has already paid off, said Julie Renfroe, assistant director of the state's Richmond lab.

Since the rapid service began, 90 percent of cases require no further testing after a DNA sample was established, Renfroe said.

For all but the remaining 10 percent of cases, the "evidence through the RADS program has proven to be sufficient," Renfroe said.

"Counties don't have an (evidence) backlog for cases where assaults have occurred once the Rapid DNA Service was established," Renfroe said.