New Hanover crime scene investigators will have quicker access to DNA results. Here's how.




  • In US
  • 2022-10-04 10:02:24Z
  • By Star News
The New Hanover County Sheriff
The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office will soon have quicker access to DNA testing, thanks to a grant approved by the county commissioners.  

Crime scene investigators with the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office will soon have the ability to test DNA samples rapidly and in-house.

The agency will be the only in the state actively using such technology, and it comes with a hefty price tag.

At its Sept. 19 meeting, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously accepted a $400,000 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant funds will be used by the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office to purchase equipment that can generate DNA test results in 90 minutes.

According to Lt. Lauren Carroll with the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office, the equipment will produce DNA test results "significantly faster" than the department has previously received such results.

Carroll said she works within the detective division at the sheriff's office and currently supervises crime scene investigation, the forensic laboratory, and property and evidence. Currently, DNA samples collected by the department are tested primarily by the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory. The laboratory processes evidence for law enforcement agencies throughout the state through its facilities in Raleigh, Edneyville and Greensboro.

Due to that high caseload, Carroll said, test results from the state crime laboratory could take months to be returned. This incoming equipment will take that months-long process down to just 90 minutes.

The rapid DNA testing instrument will be able to produce a DNA profile from a sample in a fully automated manner, without any human intervention, Carroll said. The instrument will be used as an investigative tool, she said.

"It's not an end-all-be-all, but it will be an investigative tool to be used in conjunction with other forensic processes, as well as traditional investigative techniques," Carroll said.

Carroll said the sheriff's office had been considering investing in rapid DNA testing technology "for quite some time," but wasn't sure where it could find that amount of funding. The Justice Assistant Grant program was their answer.

The Justice Assistant Grant program through the U.S. Department of Justice provides funding to state and local governments to support "program areas including law enforcement, prosecution, drug treatment and enforcement, crime victim and witness initiatives, planning, evaluation and technology improvement," according to a summary provided to the county commissioners.

Carroll said the sheriff's office began the grant process in May of this year and recently heard they'd be receiving the award. Now, the department is in the process of receiving the funds and purchasing the equipment. Once the instrument is purchased -- likely within the next two months, Carroll said -- the sheriff's office will have to go through policy and procedure review, as well as some training and studies before it can be implemented in department casework.

Carroll said the sheriff's office hopes the program will be fully installed and operational by the beginning of the 2023.

Use of the instrument will be implemented in stages, Carroll said. First, it will be used to process evidence the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory won't process without extenuating circumstances, including many property crimes.

For property crimes, such as breaking and entering a motor vehicle, weapons violations, and simple narcotics charges, the state crime laboratory, generally, doesn't process DNA evidence unless there are extenuating circumstances, Carroll said. This equipment will allow DNA testing to be done for those cases at a local level, to help investigators eliminate or identify suspects.

Carroll said the sheriff's office will continue to use the North Carolina State Crime Lab for the majority of the personal crimes it investigates, such as sexual assault and homicides.

The $400,000 grant covers more than the piece of equipment itself, Carroll said. The instrument costs roughly $120,000, she said, and a large portion of the remainder of the grant will go toward a contract with an accredited forensic laboratory that will perform confirmatory analysis and testing on DNA samples run through the rapid test.

Essentially, Carroll said, investigators will collect two DNA samples from crime scenes -- one to run through their incoming rapid DNA testing equipment for presumptive identification purposes, and one to be tested in a lab using traditional instruments for confirmation.

Carroll said the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office will be the only agency in the state actively using rapid DNA testing equipment.

"It's innovative in the state of North Carolina," she said. "We really want to start small and work from there, but we certainly believe there is a potential to expand to cold cases and larger cases in the future."

Jamey Cross is the public safety reporter at the StarNews. Reach her at jbcross@gannett.com or message her on Twitter @jameybcross.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: $400,000 grant to purchase DNA testing equipment in New Hanover approved

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