DNA forensics bill may help solve sex crimes in Utah


    By Veeda Ware

    The bi-partisan DNA technology bill recently introduced to Congress will provide over $1 billion in funding and assistance to the criminal justice system, but may only slightly benefit Utah in solving sex crimes.

    “DNA technology has the power to protect the innocent and convict the guilty and will move our criminal justice system into a new era of increased fairness and efficiency.” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to Congress on Oct. 1.

    The bill, “Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act of 2003,” will distribute over $1 billion in five years to improve state and local crime labs, train criminal justice personal in the use of DNA evidence and give funding to various DNA testing programs.

    “State governments typically don”t have a lot of money to spend in their crime laboratories,” said Pilar Shortsleeve, supervisor criminalist for the state of Utah. “This money allows smaller states to keep up with the technology that can be used in crime fighting.”

    Shortsleeve said forensics have made drastic improvements since the late ”80s when DNA was first introduced.

    “DNA technology is basically one of the greatest technological leaps in forensic science of this age; I”d say in the last 50 years,” said Shortsleeve.

    Shortsleeve works with DNA testing and analyzes DNA samples for criminal evidence.

    “Prior to DNA being available for forensic use, we relied on protein markers,” said Shortsleeve. “Those were not very stable and overtime degraded rather quickly.”

    Shortsleeve said DNA is a stable molecule and varies more between individuals.

    “We are moving at an incredibly fast pace for forensics,” said Shortsleeve.

    The bill will also contribute $755 million for the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program to eliminate over 300,000-500,000 DNA samples and crime scene evidence on hold for analysis.

    “Some laboratories are so overwhelmed with evidence that comes into lab, they haven”t been able to get to the cases,” Shortsleeve said. “The samples are usually prioritized based on how quickly they are needed in court.”

    Shortsleeve said Utah is in the top 10 in the nation for backlog turn-around, and that the funding has helped the laboratories staying on top of DNA backlog.

    “Legislature has been aggressive in giving us money,” said Shortsleeve. “Most of our money comes from the federal government.”

    DNA analysis can cost between $200-800 to process and enter into the data bank.

    “DNA can help identify suspects for crimes committed 10 years ago,” Shortsleeve said. “This is beneficial for the victim as well as suspect, because the innocent will be cleared.”

    Susan Chasson, chair of Utah Valley Sexual Assault Task Force, said she strongly supports the DNA technology act.

    “The bill will contribute a lot in identifying criminals in numerous cases,” Chasson said. “In Utah, DNA evidence won”t be as instrumental in prosecuting rape suspects, because 80-85 percent of suspects here are not strangers but acquaintances.”

    Chasson said only 1 out of 10 women who are raped report a sexual assault.

    “The bill will help a specific percentage of rape victims,” Chasson said. “It will also continue to help and protect victims and those who are innocent.”

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