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City Police, Sheriff’s Department Plan to Create DNA Testing Lab

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fresh from the success of identifying a suspect in the Clairemont serial killings through a genetic DNA match, the San Diego Police Department is planning to establish its own testing laboratory to process DNA samples.

Few such labs exist because they’re expensive and need an extensively trained staff, but more and more are being created as the popularity of DNA testing grows.

The size of the lab, which will be housed at the department’s downtown headquarters, will depend on the number of police agencies in the county that want to contribute to its cost.

“We’re committed to doing this, at least in our own police department,” said Cmdr. David Worden. “We want to do DNA analysis in our own lab. We think it will save us money in the long run.”

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So far, Sheriff Jim Roache said his department may be able to provide half the lab’s estimated $500,000 to $600,000 start-up expenses and half the $300,000 to $400,000 needed to operate it annually. The San Diego Police Department will pay the rest.

For both agencies, the money is to come from the same source: funds confiscated in drug raids.

Sheriff’s administrators are trying to line up financial support from any other police departments in the county who want to use the lab.

San Diego police officials and the district attorney’s office decided last year to create the lab when the state eliminated funding for a group of proposed regional facilities throughout California, including San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

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State budget cuts are not deterring those counties from setting up their own labs. San Diego County hopes to have its lab in operation by January. Orange County’s lab is already in place. Planning is well under way for similar facilities in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

Using DNA tests in criminal cases has become increasingly popular since 1985 and is used to link suspects to crimes through the analysis of body fluids or hair samples. Although admissible as evidence in 38 states, it also has been attacked as unreliable because varying testing procedures can produce different results.

In California, the admissibility of DNA evidence still faces a legal challenge at the state Court of Appeal. The state attorney general first gave prosecutors the approval to use DNA test results in criminal trials two years ago.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the chemical genetic code that makes up a person’s unique physical characteristics, and is found in skin, hair, semen, blood and other human tissue.

The chance that two people, besides identical twins, have the same genetic makeup could be 1 in 1 billion. The odds depend on the number of separate markers in the genetic code that match the sample. The greater number of matches for each of the eight markers that make up the code, the higher the likelihood of an exact match.

Creating a DNA lab for San Diego County will keep law-enforcement officials here from having to send samples to a private lab for about $5,000 a case, or free to the FBI’s lab but with delayed results.

Some say that, although DNA is a new and exceptionally flashy area of forensics, resources for more conventional means of analyzing evidence in cases where a suspect is known are already scarce.

“DNA is wonderful, but we have routine cases every day that we have problems getting analyzed because we’re understaffed,” said Ron Berry, supervising criminalist for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. “I support DNA testing, but there are a lot of other needs that are the bread and butter of what we do here.”

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A traditional crime lab includes latent fingerprinting identification, polygraph testing, alcohol testing, a narcotics section, a firearms division for ballistic tests and a serology department, which examines body fluids.

The county’s crime lab has been so busy in recent years that local government and law-enforcement officials asked last year for a new regional crime laboratory. At the time, a North County municipal judge said a third of the criminal cases he had seen that involved drugs were postponed because of delays in chemical analyses.

Now, officials are seeking regional DNA lab work.

San Diego police officials point to the recent arrest of Cleophus Prince, suspected in the murders of five women in the Clairemont and University City areas, as the justification for the expense.

Investigators say Prince is under arrest largely on the strength of DNA evidence. Police say dried semen found on the clothing of one of the murder victims matches Prince’s blood and saliva samples. In the Prince case, a private lab took a month to process the DNA samples.

Although the Prince case was “a true whodunit with a lot of people victimized,” Berry said, most homicides are cases in which the suspect is already known and investigation has to do more with the circumstances of why they were committed.

He said his office, which handles cases for all police departments in the county except the city of San Diego, has processed DNA samples about half a dozen times in the past six years.

DNA enthusiasts abound, however, and argue that the technology will be used in more and more cases each year.

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Although conventional methods of studying body fluids put the odds of having two people with the same genetic pattern at 1 in 100, DNA analysis raises the probability to 1 in 1 billion, making it more likely that an exact match has been made, experts say.

“I can see DNA demanded in almost every case in the future,” said Jim Stam, supervising criminalist for the San Diego Police Department. “It has the potential not only to identify a suspect, but it excludes a lot of people quickly.”

The state Department of Justice, which had hoped to establish five regional DNA labs before funding was cut, is opening a data center in Berkeley this summer that will be a repository of DNA information about suspects.

Whereas few law-enforcement agencies now have the means of analyzing DNA data, there may be a dozen or so labs throughout the country within the next few years, many of them in California, according to Jack Scheidegger, chief of the state Department of Justice’s bureau of forensic services.

Duplication and expense won’t be a problem as the use of DNA technology expands, he said.

“The FBI cannot continue to do all the casework that exists,” Scheidegger said. “More and more of these states need to come on-line. It’s not expensive if you consider the results it has had in solving a crime or eliminating a suspect.”

The DNA lab will be staffed by two criminalists--four if the Sheriff’s Department is involved--and a lab assistant and clerk, the Police Department’s Stam said.

Roache said the Sheriff’s Department is willing to spend the money as soon as possible.

“This technology is not going to be cheap,” Roache said. “But we need to do this so we don’t have to line up every time we want some (DNA) evidence processed. We’ll do anything to expedite the process.”


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