March 18, 2010

State crime lab can offer police timely, vital aid


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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, December 3, 2007...Evidence swabs like this are used to gather DNA samples for testing at the Maine State Police Crime lab in Augusta.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, December 3, 2007...David Muniec, Forensic Biology Supervisor at the Maine State Police Crime lab in Augusta, describes the processes used in DNA testing while seated in the facilities DNA extraction lab.

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Staff Writer

Portland police investigating a burglary at Gilman Electric wiped a moist cotton swab across a metal box that the burglar had moved.

The swab, with the invisible skin cells it contained, was sent to the Maine State Police crime laboratory for analysis. The DNA matched the profile of Norman Dickinson, a convicted felon whose record was in the database.

Now Dickinson is under arrest on burglary charges that could send him back to prison for up to five years.

DNA evidence has long been a fixture in high-profile crimes, such as murders or sex assaults, but the state crime lab is one of the few in the country that routinely uses DNA analysis to solve property crimes, such as burglary and robbery.

And laboratory officials are hoping to increase the size of the facility's staff to handle more lower-level crime analysis.

''The typical states are challenged with just being able to do violent crimes, spending their time on murder and sex assaults,'' said Ray Wickenheiser, a former crime lab director in Louisiana who conducted an analysis of the efficiency and effectiveness of the Maine laboratory this summer.

''Very few states have the luxury of being able to attack property crimes.''

Maine's ability to develop DNA profiles from trace evidence collected at the scene of property crimes is enviable, but still falls short of its potential.

''Right now we're doing 1,000 cases in the lab per year. We have the capacity to do 2,500,'' said S. Elliot Kollman, the laboratory's director.

Wickenheiser said that based on studies, about 20 percent of property crimes are likely to yield trace evidence that could lead to a DNA profile. That's particularly important when dealing with textured surfaces, such as fabric, that don't retain fingerprints well.

In most property crimes, departments don't collect trace evidence. Some of that hesitation stems from a lack of training and supplies available to officers, police officials say.

In the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, the initial investigator of a burglary is often a road deputy who might not have the time, training or equipment to identify areas where trace evidence might have been left behind and collect it, Capt. Don Goulet said. By the time a detective can respond, the trace evidence might be gone.

Goulet also said the lag time in getting property crime data back can stretch to months, but he conceded that the department could use the lab better.

Some reluctance might grow from a sense among officers that the cutting-edge forensic science of DNA analysis is primarily for use in major crimes, not routine thefts and burglaries.

Major crimes get the headlines, such as when DNA led to the arrest and conviction last year of Michael Hutchinson, 12 years after he killed Crystal Perry of Bridgton.

Mainers are much more likely to be victims of property crime than any other type, however, and it can have a far-reaching effect on a person's sense of security.

''If you look overall at all of the crimes in Maine, property crimes -- which include your thefts, burglaries, arson, car arsons, larcenies, receiving stolen property -- make up over 90 percent of all crimes reported,'' Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan said. ''They do severely impact people -- not the way a murder does, but they do indeed impact people's feeling of security in their homes and businesses.''

The laboratory probably would need to add staff members -- as many as three full-time analysts -- to work on the estimated 1,300 property crimes in which trace evidence is likely to be found, Wickenheiser said.

Before it expands, however, the state would need long-term funding for work that is now paid for through federal grants -- work that represents about half the DNA analysis done by or for the laboratory.

The price tag to cover federally funded positions and add a position to analyze more property crimes could top $400,000.

Jordan said the department will be seeking outside funding to help offset some of the laboratory costs, but it expects at least some of that money could be on the table this spring for funding in the following biennium.

''We are investigating every possible resource that could become available for us to adequately fund the lab,'' Jordan said. ''Given the $95 million shortfall we're facing here (in the state budget), we've got to search for every possible source of funding to handle this.''

The state police forensic biology section is at the crime laboratory headquarters in Augusta.

In one small room, samples are culled from evidence. DNA historically was extracted from blood or semen left at a crime scene, but new technology is so sensitive that even a few skin cells on a door handle or a cigarette can be used to develop a DNA profile, said David Muniec, the laboratory's forensic biology supervisor.

Some departments send entire items, such as a sneaker or a beer can, to the lab's chemistry section. Increasingly, however, police are taking their own samples at the crime scene, using what looks like a Q-tip but with a plastic casing that protects the sample. The sample then can be mailed to the laboratory and processed faster than if the chemistry section has to isolate a sample from an item.

In another room, those samples are immersed in a solution that ruptures any cells present, so the DNA is accessible. If enough is there, the strands of DNA are analyzed at the molecular level at certain locations.

Each stage of the process occurs in isolation from the others, using piped-in, purified air and even adhesive paper on the floor to prevent contamination. The process relies on high-tech equipment, most of it funded through federal grants.

The resulting profile is represented by colored lines zig-zagging across a computer screen.

Every cell in a person's body has exactly the same DNA, and the odds of two people having similar genetic makeup can be billions to one.

Maine's laboratory is remarkably fast at developing a profile in a major case, Wickenheiser said, adding that it sometimes produces results in less than three days.

''The typical crime lab will take weeks to get a result because they have so many cases to process. For them to get this quick response'' when most officers are focused on the case ''is invaluable in terms of investigation, helping eliminate or include suspects,'' Wickenheiser said.

The state's speedy turnaround and its ability to develop profiles from property crime evidence is largely attributable to Maine's low crime rate, Wickenheiser said. A companion study of Orange County, Calif., found that its laboratory, with a staff more than 10 times as large, was struggling to keep up with evidence from major cases.

Using DNA can help police solve crimes faster, and that translates into crime prevention, Wickenheiser said. The average burglary costs about $1,500 in terms of damage done and actual losses -- costs everyone bears in higher insurance rates, he said.

On average, burglars commit 20 offenses before being caught; some are responsible for more than 100. DNA more than pays for itself if those people are taken off the street more quickly, he said.

Processing evidence from property crimes doesn't get the around-the-clock treatment that a major crime does. Samples often are processed in the order in which they are received, which can lead to delays.

Maine chiefs have said they would use the laboratory more if the response time on property crimes was no more than a month, according to Wickenheiser's report.

Kollman, the lab director, said the key to using DNA to stop burglars and solve other property crimes is to get the word out to the state's departments that the laboratory is encouraging them to submit crime scene samples.

''They need to know we're open for business,'' he said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Additional Photos

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, December 3, 2007...David Muniec, Forensic Biology Supervisor at the Maine State Police Crime lab in Augusta looks at the results of DNA testing done at the lab on his computer.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Tuesday, December 3, 2007...S. Elliot Kollman, Director of the Maine State Police Laboratory in Augusta, stands in one of the DNA testing labs at the facility.


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