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Richland County Sheriff Stops the Clock on Crime with Rapid DNA Instrument

Cool police work converged with quick chemistry in South Carolina last summer, putting an attempted murder suspect behind bars just hours after the crime was committed.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott lays out this fast-paced story with a high-tech twist:

“It started with an attempted robbery in an apartment complex,” he said. “There was a physical altercation, the bad guy shoots our victim in the leg, gets away, and flees the scene.”

A few hours later, sharp-eyed deputies stopped a vehicle for a seatbelt violation. As they questioned the driver, the passenger, who turned out to be the shooting suspect, jumped into the driver’s seat and sped away.

The deputies gave chase; catching and arresting the suspect in short order. In the meantime, the driver left behind cooperated with investigators, letting them search her apartment for evidence connecting her boyfriend—the suspect—to the shooting.

Lott recalls a timeline so tight that the investigation events were practically simultaneous. “Meantime, the suspect is here at the sheriff’s department being interviewed and denies having anything to do with the case.”

 

DNA Match Hours After Incident

A DNA sample taken from the shooting victim at the hospital early that morning and blood found on the suspect’s shoes were hurried to the county’s forensic unit.

“While investigators were interrogating the suspect, we put all the DNA from the suspect and from the victim into the RapidHIT and it came back as a match,” Lott said, referring to the IntegenX RapidHIT® desktop DNA instrument that sits in his agency’s crime lab. Less than two hours after a forensic DNA scientist slipped the samples into the machine, investigators knew they had their man.

“We had this guy four hours after the incident happened,” Lott said.

 

A Sheriff’s Vision

Elected Richland County Sheriff in 1996, Lott runs a large law enforcement organization in this 772-square mile jurisdiction of mostly unincorporated communities surrounding Columbia, S.C.

With nearly 800 sworn officers patrolling by plane, boat and fleet vehicles plus full crime investigation and forensic laboratory support, the department commands an annual budget of $35 million, approved by the Richland County Council.

Lott originally joined the department he now heads in 1975 as a patrol officer. A career student of law enforcement best practices, he holds a master’s degree in criminal justice and has graduated from the FBI National Academy, the FBI National Executive Institute, and the John F Kennedy School of Government program at Harvard University. On the side, he serves as Brigadier General, Deputy Commander of the South Carolina State Guard and has a resume of public service—and awards for that service—that runs two full pages.

Lott has only worked briefly for one other law enforcement agency, so his institutional knowledge and roots within the Richland County community run deep. He came to office not only seasoned, but with a plan to create new, more efficient criminal investigation protocols. One of his first priorities was to build a county forensic lab.

“South Carolina has a state police agency responsible for all forensic analysis in this state. It’s a challenging task to do the volume of work that they must deliver on a timely basis,” he said. “Every day that you’re waiting for somebody else to do your work, that’s a case that’s not getting cleared. That’s not closure for victims. That’s not our bad guy being taken off the street and being kept from committing other crimes. I realized that we needed DNA, ballistics, and all the new forensic technology to be on the cutting edge,” Lott said.

Lott petitioned the Richland County Council in 1999 for funds to build a state-of-the-art forensic lab and got a green light. “When you want to create a lab, you can go out and buy equipment all day long,” Lott said. “Finding the scientists—the doctors, the certified people—is harder. There are only a limited number of those people in the whole world.”

“We found the people first and then built the lab around the people. It took five years for us to get fully online with DNA, ballistics, and everything. We have a full-service lab now. We don’t have to send anything out; we can do it all in house.”

Among the forensic lab’s current 13-member professional staff are nine with post-graduate degrees; three lab scientists serve as national inspectors/assessors for laboratory accreditation organizations. All 13 staffers lecture regularly at the University of South Carolina.

Rich with board-certified subject matter experts in all types of evidence analysis including drug identification, firearms and tool marks, latent prints and DNA, the lab hews to stringent scientific protocols in all disciplines.

The DNA unit of the lab earned international accreditation by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/Lab) in 2006; the entire lab was internationally accredited in 2009.

 

Rapid DNA Expands Investigative Capability

With this jewel of a lab up, running and earning the respect of law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, it was natural for Lott’s agency to be among the first to use Rapid DNA technology. A RapidHIT instrument was delivered to Richland County in December 2013 and had been put through validation protocols by spring 2014.

“We went from processing DNA where it took months, to where it took days, now we’re down to hours,” Lott said. “That just shows how the technology has improved over time and the RapidHIT is getting it down to minutes. You can’t get a better tool to either eliminate a suspect or confirm that we’ve got the right guy.”

Solicitor Dan Johnson, the chief prosecutor for South Carolina’s Fifth Judicial Circuit and a former Chief Deputy in Richland County, confirmed the benefit of Rapid DNA. “

Rapid DNA allows us, from a prosecutorial perspective, to react to a case a lot quicker than we normally could,” he said. “And it’s an essential tool for law enforcement. They can process evidence quickly in order to develop leads or suspects

and react to criminal behavior fast.”

Assistant Lab Director Dr. Gray Amick who heads Richland County’s DNA unit has found additional uses for Rapid DNA in the months he’s been working directly with the technology.

“Initially, it was just for these rush cases,” Amick said, “but I see it more and more as just another instrument in the lab that allows us to do a certain part of our process more efficiently.”

Amick’s team uses Rapid DNA to help investigators identify suspects in real time and, at the completion of more formal lab-based case workups, to run DNA reference standards from suspect buccal swabs.

“One of our quality standards is to keep contamination down,” Amick said, “so we’re separating our evidence from our standards within time, space, and instrumentation now. That’s a benefit for us. It’s more efficient for our process that we’ve incorporated Rapid DNA in that manner.”

 

Science on the Desktop

Developed and manufactured by IntegenX Inc., a privately held life sciences company based in Pleasanton, Calif., RapidHIT instruments integrate

advanced fluidics, optics, and biochemistry capabilities to produce sample-to-answer products for DNA-based human identity testing.

The instrument used by Richland County, about the size of an early laser printer, uses a sealed cartridge system that is pre-filled with chemicals that extract and analyze biological samples provided by a suspect or found at a crime scene. Cartridges with up to seven receptacles for evidence can be loaded with separately prepared samples of inner cheek cells, spit, blood, or semen. These cartridges are inserted into the instrument, and then at the press of a button, the instrument begins an efficient evaluation of submitted DNA, delivering identification profiles in roughly 90 minutes.

Lab scientists in Richland County match RapidHIT-generated profiles against their agency’s local database of suspects and unknowns, then deliver reports directly to investigators down the hall.

The lab still uses traditional bench science to develop CODIS-compliant profiles to upload to state and national databases. It uses RapidHIT GlobalFiler® kits, which meet quality assurance standards set by the FBI for CODIS-standard databases, for its suspect standards, which are included in the county database.

“We always felt DNA would be able to help us catch that unknown suspect. Not someone who we had in custody, but someone who we were out there looking for,” Lott stated. “We’ve solved crimes with DNA. It’s done everything that we’ve dreamed it could and even more.”

 

A Lab Working in Lockstep with Investigators and Prosecutors

The other piece of Sheriff’s Lott’s vision that has speeded up the investigation process in this jurisdiction was handing investigators the autonomy to work directly with the crime lab to prioritize forensic testing on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s not like this in every agency,” Lott said. “Our goal, when we set up our forensic lab, was to have investigators and forensic scientists all working together. They are in the same building, in close proximity, all within the same division.”

“What’s unique about our system is every deputy has been trained and has equipment to take DNA at any crime scene. We’re doing every type of crime that you can imagine.”

Investigators consult with forensic scientists on a daily basis and include them in regular meetings. Invested in each other’s work, they keep each other informed of progress in the field and in the lab.

“There’s a squad meeting a couple times a week,” Amick said. “During that meeting, previous crimes will be discussed with a forensics person in the room. They may have an additional homicide meeting and forensics will be involved in discussing the scene and the evidence. Forensics will have input about what we can run and what sounds like good evidence.”

Prosecutors—known in South Carolina as solicitors, a throwback to colonial times—are brought into the investigative mix early on, according to Sheriff Lott.

“For major cases, we consult with the solicitor’s office. When they hear that we’ve got the suspect’s DNA

and

the victim’s DNA on the suspect’s shoes, they recognize they have a great case,” he said, referencing a currently pending murder case in the solicitor’s office. Solicitor Johnson agreed. “What is great about what they’re able to do is they can process evidence quickly in order to develop leads or suspects and react to criminal behavior fast, and that’s a benefit to the community,” he said.

“Obviously DNA is one of those tools that helps agencies to solve crimes. Rapid DNA helps you do it faster,” Johnson said. “It’s not that some other jurisdiction wouldn’t be able to solve the same crime, it would just take longer.”

 

A Resource for Law Enforcement Throughout the Region

“Most agencies go to the state unless they want a rush job, then they come to us,” Lott said. “We’ve actually done DNA analysis for agencies throughout the state who want quick turnaround. We charge them for just what it costs us to do it.”

“The Sheriff makes that lab available to other jurisdictions. It’s a resource for our whole area,” Solicitor Johnson said. “As the chief prosecutor in two counties, if I need something, I might call them and ask them to run it. It doesn’t really matter to me which law enforcement agency has the case.”

“Our cases are our priority, but we can actually take care of our work and do other people’s work, too,” Lott said, which means his lab has essentially no backlog of its own.

Having built a model operation for agencies planning to set up their own crime labs, Richland County Sheriff’s forensic experts frequently field consultation calls or host meetings with peers who want to discuss lab techniques and workflow.

“We help others develop their labs,” Lott said. “They usually come and preview our labs to get ideas. We make our people available to help them.”

 

Rapid DNA: Serving the Community

Faster investigations and faster lab results bring closure a lot quicker to victims and their families, and that’s what they want,” Lott said. “Rapid DNA technology allows us to quickly be able to catch the suspect, the bad guy, the murderer—whoever it may be. They can’t start a healing process until the bad guy is caught.”




Published in Law and Order, May 2015

Rating : 10.0


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Comments

1 Comments

Rape kits

Posted on : Jan 26 at 10:18 AM By CAWS

Hopefully this will allow the huge backlog of rape kits to be processed so perps can be stopped.

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