BURLINGTON — In a warehouse complex that used to be a fabric finishing plant, a man who once copied VHS tapes for a living may be presiding over the next big thing in crime fighting.
DNA:SI Labs is finalizing contracts with police and sheriff’s departments across the Piedmont Triad on a new DNA database. It’s the company’s first widespread foray in North Carolina. The company will double its lab space by building a new, thin-walled complex in a cavernous warehouse.
“The market is so huge,” company President Richard Clark said as he showed off the expansion. “This is a society changing. …”
The sound of construction drowned him out before he could finish.
Greensboro police Chief Ken Miller has been pushing this project for months. His department expects to take DNA swabs from crime scenes and suspects within a month, then ship them to DNA:SI’s lab for analysis and inclusion in a new database.
Other departments across the state are reviewing contracts to join. More are asking Greensboro officials for information.
Greensboro will focus on tying repeat offenders to property crimes that the overworked state DNA lab doesn’t have time to focus on. The State Bureau of Investigation’s lab takes an average of nine to 10 months to process typical samples, and it works with every law enforcement agency in the state.
DNA:SI promises results within weeks and online access to a new database of DNA profiles. A quick turnaround turns DNA into an investigation tool, not just evidence for a trial, Clark said.
Clark said his company processes a few thousand DNA samples a month in its lab on Tucker Street. It works with nine enforcement agencies in Florida, Louisiana, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Clark said he hopes to top 20,000 samples a month soon. The next goal, after he doubles his lab space, is 50,000 a month.
Clark acknowledges the company may be on the verge of big success. Local police departments expect a powerful new crime-fighting tool.
And it all began with a video cassette bound for Congress.
Clark used to be in the VHS business, copying tapes in bulk. The federal government was his largest customer.
One day, a tape arrived featuring James Watson, who helped unlock the structure of life’s genetic blueprint: DNA.
Watson wanted funding to map human DNA. Clark’s company copied the tape for every member of Congress. He said he watched it “over and over and over.”
Time passed, as did VHS tapes. Clark read about DNA backlogs plaguing law enforcement labs around the country and he “figured we would start the FedEx of the DNA business.”
DNA:SI is not the only company that does this. But testing DNA for crime fighting — forensic DNA — is not a crowded field.
DNA:SI’s first law enforcement client was Palm Bay, Fla., in 2007. The city quickly saw crime rates drop, though they have since rebounded.
Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana hired DNA:SI in 2009.
“It’s a good program,” said Lt. Allen Venable, who manages the program for the Lafayette sheriff’s office. “We’re still very, very happy with it.”
But, the Duke case?
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
In 2006, the company — then called DNA Security — tested DNA samples for Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, who was prosecuting the Duke lacrosse rape case.
Lacrosse team members had been accused of raping a stripper. They were exonerated and Nifong was disbarred.
DNA Security fired lab director Brian Meehan, whose report “obscured findings” that cleared the players, according to an appeals court decision. Meehan’s “opaque language” glossed over the fact that DNA samples found didn’t match any of the lacrosse players, the court found.
“The person responsible for that hasn’t been here for five years,” Clark told the News & Record this month.
Clark also said the incident was blown out of proportion. He said the defense team didn’t request the lab’s data for months. He said Meehan was fired because he wasn’t a good communicator, he prepared poorly for his court testimony and his “inability to clarify” the lab’s work made the company look bad.
Meehan said, “I categorically deny and refute all comments made by Richard Clark regarding me and the Duke lacrosse matter.”
DNA:SI, which changed its name in 2009, lost business from the incident, Clark said, but not its accreditation. The Garner-based American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board confirmed that DNA:SI is accredited.
DNA:SI settled a lawsuit earlier this month with three players who sued the company over Meehan’s report. The terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed. A second lawsuit on the matter continues.
Attorneys for some of the Duke lacross players did not return telephone messages.
A team from the Greensboro Police Department and other area law enforcement offices vetted DNA:SI and three other DNA companies before going with DNA:SI, according to Steve Williams, Greensboro’s director of forensic services.
The Duke lacrosse case never came up, Williams said. Miller said he learned of DNA:SI’s role in it this week from the News & Record.
The costs of prevention
Miller won’t put a number on his goal to reduce crime. He wants to start by developing DNA profiles on the roughly 500 “priority offenders” his department has targeted.
He hopes many will volunteer samples. Officers in communities already working with DNA:SI said that strategy works sometimes but not always.
The law for getting DNA for this new database isn’t explicit. Miller and Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said collections will be governed by the search and seizure rules of the Fourth Amendment.
The database, called LODIS, will be separate from the state and federal DNA database, called CODIS. North Carolina jailers can force anyone charged with a violent crime to submit a sample to CODIS, but not to LODIS.
Officers may take a “touch DNA” sample from anything a suspected criminal touches, whether the suspect knows it or not, Miller said. The department also plans to take DNA swabs from crime scenes, and potentially from victims to separate their DNA profiles from criminals’ profiles.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s North Carolina branch said earlier this month it’s “troubled” by the growth of DNA databases. It said law enforcement should tell anyone volunteering DNA that a record of it will be kept forever.
Miller wouldn’t commit to that this week, saying his department is working on collection protocols.
Clark has said DNA profiles in the database won’t include health information. He said the only thing analysts can tell from profiles is gender and whether the profile matches others in the database.
Communities that use LODIS quickly see a 10 to 20 percent drop in crime, Clark said. Palm Bay showed a 13.6 percent decrease in burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts between 2007 when it implemented the system and 2009, according to crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Robberies decreased nearly 31 percent.
Since then, with one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country and budget cuts reducing police positions and trimming the LODIS project’s budget, crime rates have rebounded.
Lafayette Parish saw a nearly 10 percent drop in property crimes from 2009 to 2011.
“I can tell you that, if it were not for LODIS, we have a lot of cases that would have never been solved,” Venable said. “We got one hit on one car burglary that solved eight other ones.”
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office in Florida has used the system since 2010. It gives police leads on cases where they have little other information, and it connects serial crimes, office spokesman Chuck Mulligan said.
“When you can solve 35 car burglaries, put it on one individual, that person’s going to be away for a while,” Mulligan said.
Miller expects local results to take time. The department has budgeted $125,000 for the program, including a $14,000 setup fee. The City Council approved this funding without debate last month. Each test will cost $100, and there are much higher costs if a DNA:SI technician has to testify in court.
Miller said he doesn’t want to lock more people up. He said he hopes that people who know they’re in the database won’t become serial offenders.
Without an incentive, “you don’t commit one burglary and check it off your bucket list,” Miller said. “You’re going back.”
(News & Record)
By Travis Fain
Saturday, February 23, 2013