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DNA evidence vital in investigations

Officials say they hope to clear up misconceptions
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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DNA evidence has been a large part of many high-profile Placer criminal convictions, but the process of gathering evidence and using it to solve a case is nothing like you see on television. According to Jill Spriggs, chief of the Bureau of Forensic Services for the California Department of Justice, there are 13 crime labs in California. Seven of these labs test DNA evidence. These labs receive about 180 test requests a month and complete about 200 requests a month. The crime lab in Sacramento completes about 30 requests a month with a staff of about five people. The Sacramento lab serves all law enforcement agencies in Placer, Solano, Yolo, Nevada, Alpine and Amador counties, according to Spriggs. “Any police agencies in those counties will come to DOJ Sacramento lab,” Spriggs said. Deputy District Attorney Jeff Wood, with the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, said the office tries to use DNA evidence in a case whenever possible, because it offers a solution, even though the crime lab can’t absolutely confirm something. “We try to use it whenever we can,” Wood said. “What they say it’s like a one in six quintillion chance that there is anyone out there that has the same DNA. It can take somebody else’s story saying, ‘Hey, nothing happened,’ and just obliterate it.” Wood said a jury and defendant understand if positive DNA evidence is available, it will solve the case. “It becomes important in that aspect as well, just as a bargaining tool,” he said. One of the misconceptions Wood said he wants to clear up about DNA evidence is about how easy it is to gather and test. “When we get it, it’s extremely helpful,” he said. “The problem is getting it and processing it. It’s not quite as obtainable as many people think. It takes months to get results on DNA.” It’s sometimes hard to obtain evidence at all in the long-term molestation cases Wood works on, because there is usually only a 72-hour window in which bodily fluids can be removed before they start to degrade, he said. “In other sexual assault cases like rape cases you have a better chance of getting (DNA samples) because those are usually reported right away,” Wood said. The Placer County Sexual Assault Response Team performs the examinations through which evidence is gathered. A representative of the team was unable to comment on the process by press time. Spriggs said DNA testing isn’t an automatic process because the lab must first receive crime scene materials from law enforcement. Then a screening process takes place in which technicians have to determine whether there are any traces of DNA on the materials. Screening for semen, blood or saliva from one bed sheet takes about eight hours, Spriggs said. Spriggs said before it can be tested, DNA is removed from the crime-scene material. “You have to extract the DNA first, which can take two days to get it out of the sample,” she said. Then technicians research how much DNA is available, make copies of it and put it through an instrument for genetic profiling, which can take up to a week, Spriggs said. After that, technicians study the data, write reports that are technically and administratively reviewed and send the report to the requesting law enforcement agency or district attorney’s office, Spriggs said. Spriggs said just the screening process of a homicide case could take a few days to two months just for notes, photographs and measurements of evidence on crime-scene materials. “You want to make sure you cover everything,” she said. Spriggs said certain cases, including those without suspects and those already taken to court, have priority in DNA processing. “It depends on what kind of case it is,” she said. “Homicide, rape all get priority before burglary, robbery. When you only have four people doing DNA … you have to triage your cases and do the suspectless ones first and (the ones with) court dates.” In 2004 Proposition 69 passed. This law required all adult convicted felony offenders to submit DNA to the state database. By January 2009 all adults arrested for felonies had to submit samples to the database. This caused a backlog in crime lab processing, but Spriggs said the testing flow has now returned to normal. Sgt. Dave Lawicka of the Auburn Police Department said there is really no way to say how long it takes to receive results back on DNA testing, but depending on the case it can take a year or two or a week or two. “Sometimes in high-priority, murder, rape with a high probability of another victim, cases you can call a Department of Justice supervisor and get immediate testing,” Lawicka said. “Auburn Police Department detectives have done that for a case with a child sex crime victim.” Lt. Jeff Ausnow of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said the office sends several hundred pieces of potential sample material to be tested each year. “In my opinion DNA is a valuable tool to corroborate evidence and gives investigators information about what occurred at a crime scene and who was present,” Ausnow said. “DNA evidence techniques are continuously being improved every day, making possible identification of suspects and victims in old and new cases.” Spriggs said she wants to emphasize the fact that DNA processing is nothing like you see on TV. “It’s a meticulous process using trained criminalists,” she said. “It doesn’t take an hour like on CSI (Crime Scene Investigation).” Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com ----------------------------------------------------- Recent Placer County cases using DNA evidence · The 2006 conviction of Mario Garcia for the murder of Christie Wilson. Even though her body has not been found, Wilson’s DNA was found in Garcia’s car, her last known location before her disappearance. · The 2007 conviction of Juan Ledesma, also known as the “Pillowcase Burglar,” for multiple Auburn and Placer County burglaries. Ledesma’s DNA was gathered through blood left at the scene of one of the burglaries. · The 2009 conviction of Paul Kovacich Jr. for the murder of his wife, Janet. DNA evidence was the deciding factor in a case that took 26 years to solve. · The 2010 arrest of Auburn resident Sean McHugh on a rape allegation. The Auburn Police Department took the report for the case in February 2009 and McHugh was arrested in early July 2010 after the department received DNA testing results.