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O.C. Team Leads in New DNA Era

Times Staff Writer

A team of Orange County prosecutors that has been on the cutting edge of DNA profiling is taking a lead role to help police and investigators throughout the state deal with the thousands of samples they’ll soon be required to collect from convicted and accused criminals.

The district attorney’s TRACKRS unit, which helped craft the just-passed Proposition 69, will meet Tuesday with representatives from the Orange County courts and Sheriff’s Department and the state Justice Department’s crime lab to share and solicit ideas for a statewide model.

The DNA database developed in Orange County is widely credited as being the most advanced in the state and has helped crack cold cases and catch serial criminals.

“Whatever we put together will be comprehensive and complete, and we’ll make it available to anyone who’s interested,” said TRACKRS commander John Santy. TRACKRS stands for Task Force Review Aimed at Catching Killers, Rapists and Sex Offenders.

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With this month’s statewide passage of Proposition 69, a DNA sample must be taken from every adult and juvenile convicted of a felony in California and from every adult arrested on suspicion of murder or certain sex crimes.

In 2009, the law will expand to include those held on suspicion of any felony or certain misdemeanors. Retroactive provisions require that samples also be obtained from some California prison inmates and parolees not covered under previous law, which applies only to those convicted of serious felonies.

The new law is expected to add tens of thousands of new DNA fingerprints to a statewide database.

Santy and fellow TRACKRS member Camille Hill, a deputy district attorney who helped write the proposition, say the new caseload can be handled relatively smoothly with a system not all that different from the one used in Orange County. And other prosecutors in the state agree.

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“They will have a very tight model for collection, when all is said and done, and they will get it done rapidly, which will be very useful for all jurisdictions in California, especially some of the smaller ones,” said Lisa Kahn, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney who serves as a forensic advisor and helped Hill write the proposition.

Kahn and other officials said Los Angeles County is moving just as quickly with its own model. Kahn, who will be attending this week’s meeting in Orange County, said Los Angeles County, by virtue of its size, has many unique issues that would not apply elsewhere.

In Orange County, when a defendant is convicted of a crime that qualifies for DNA collection, the Superior Court notifies the jail. When the defendant is processed, a computer spits out a piece of paper instructing the deputy on duty to take a DNA sample. One of the biggest changes written into the proposition is that blood samples will no longer be the standard. A Q-tip-like instrument known as a buckle swab will be used to scrape the inner lining of a defendant’s cheek. That is expected to simplify collection, save money and allow a trained deputy, rather than a nurse or phlebotomist, to obtain a sample. Currently, the Sheriff’s Department contracts with a company to take blood samples when a nurse isn’t available.

Once the sample is taken, it is placed in a cardboard kit that looks like a pizza box and stored in a locker. A district attorney’s investigator collects kits daily, checks the information against the court paperwork and then enters it into the TRACKRS computer database.

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The kits are mailed to the state Department of Justice laboratory in Richmond, where robotics technology is used to extract, analyze and code the DNA with 13 identification markers that establish an individual profile. Scientists enter the computer profile into the lab’s Combined DNA Index.

A second database includes DNA samples collected from bodily fluids and other evidence found at crime scenes that can’t yet be linked to suspects. Once a week, the two databases are compared to see if there are any likely matches. A third database keeps track of the DNA of missing persons.

All the information gathered by the state is uploaded to national databanks.

TRACKRS got into the DNA business more than seven years ago. The Orange County D.A.'s office has pushed hard for the expansion of DNA testing along with Bruce Harrington, the Newport Beach developer who funded the campaign for Proposition 69, in part because of the unsolved 1980 killings of his brother and brother’s wife.

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What sets the TRACKRS database apart, Santy said, is that not only does it keep track of evidence and information from all homicides, sexual assaults and other major crimes in the county, but also the names of convicts who have been ordered to provide DNA samples. Keeping a record of the convicts at the local level is important, Santy said, because routine backlogs at the state level could prevent a timely “hit.”

That will be crucial for counties creating similar databases, as the state deals with a flood of samples under the new law, he said. Those counties will also be able to prevent the sampling duplication that would result when the same suspect is arrested more than once and in more than one jurisdiction.

“That kind of double draw mucks up the works, and overloads the system,” Santy said.

After Tuesday’s meeting, a follow-up conference call is planned for the same day by members of the California District Attorney’s Assn. and interested sheriff’s departments, to discuss the issues and figure out the next steps, said CDAA Director Dave LaBahn. The association hopes some new guidelines will be in effect by the time it gathers for its monthly meeting in the last week of January.

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“Our hope,” he said, “is that we can be at the point where protocols and guidelines are already in place so we can have a series of presentations and panels to discuss how they are working -- and if not, how do we make [them] work.”


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