In the late fall of 1987, a British baker was sentenced to 30 years for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Leicestershire, England. He was the first person ever convicted through the use of DNA.
Since then, law enforcement agencies around the world have used DNA profiling – the process that identifies an individual based on characteristics that are as unique as fingerprints – to identify suspects connected with all kinds of crimes.
A DNA sample related to a 1980 cold case related to a Beaufort County murder and rape had not gotten a hit since it was submitted to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s forensics lab in 1999. As technology evolved, the sample – like many others – was retested.
Finally, in 2016, it was matched to DNA given by an individual who recently had been arrested in the county.
Capt. Bob Bromage, who oversees Cold Case Investigations for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, said that DNA in many cases has confirmed the identity of the suspect or person of interest.
“And it certainly bolsters the case going forward,” he added, “but that’s not the whole case. Now you have to work the rest of it and do the background on everything.”
A technique that made recent headlines was that of familial searches – uploading a DNA sample to a genealogy database as a way to find close relatives to the unknown DNA donor. First used in 2002 in the United Kingdom, it worked to solve the case of the Golden State Killer, but has not yet worked for one of Beaufort County’s cold cases.
Bromage said that years before Ancestry – one of the big genealogy DNA testing companies – began testing, BCSO in 1995 submitted the DNA of an unknown female murder victim found in Yemassee to a Florida-based company called DNAPrint Genomics.
“They used biogeographical DNA testing methods to determine her ancestry,” said Bromage. “It was reported she had similar DNA sequences to those in persons from the Caribbean and South America. This information, her ethnic appearance and the ‘Leonisa’ brand panties only manufactured at the time in Colombia, South America, were helpful, but it still has not established her identity.”
The details of the woman’s case, along with 28 other cold cases, are profiled on the BCSO’s website.
Lack of identification, as well as no solution, leaves Bromage with a sense of frustration.
“There were some great leads after we put this out to some of the Caribbean and South American countries, but she has not been identified,” he said. “I’ve done about everything I could think to get her identified. It’s just too bad.”
The plethora of high-tech forensic crime programs speaks to the burgeoning fascination with both crime solving as well as the tools used by forensic technicians. It makes catching the bad guys look easy. It is not.
“Many times, DNA evidence is collected in cases where we have no suspect. It may take several years for the case to be solved through a DNA CODIS hit,” said Lt. Kelly McCauley, head of the Bluffton Police Department’s Investigations Division. “This is often due to the suspect’s DNA not being on file when the DNA was originally searched through the CODIS database.”
CODIS is “the acronym for the Combined DNA Index System and is the generic term used to describe the FBI’s program of support for criminal justice DNA databases as well as the software used to run these databases,” according to the FBI website.
The sheriff’s office 1980 cold case was solved using the facilities at SLED, the original lab. Since then, the BCSO has established its own forensics lab where evidence is taken for examination and testing.
Bromage said it gives the organization the ability to provide testing locally for area law enforcement agencies and not just for DNA. Both Bromage and McCauley said fingerprints remain a key piece of evidence, and multiple pieces make for stronger cases.
DNA profiling also is not as quick as TV shows lead viewers to believe.
“Labs most often prioritize cases such as officer-involved shootings, murder cases, etc. If there are several pieces of DNA evidence analyzed, it may take longer,” said McCauley. “A recent case took a little over two weeks to get back, but again there were multiple pieces to be analyzed for DNA.”
If the lab received a perfect sample – say a single drop of blood – handled perfectly from the time it was found until it was handed over, and it was the only thing going on that day, it could take only a few hours to decipher, said Renita Berry, Beaufort County Laboratory director.
However, “No case comes into the lab that easily,” said Berry. “It can take a few days or a few months. It’s all dependent upon the type of case. There are a lot of checks and balances before we can issue a report.”
Use of DNA in bringing convictions is now so routine, said Bromage, that it’s more unusual when it is not part of an evidence package.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.