News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 22, 2010

Touch DNA forensics kits streamlining prison investigations

TERRE HAUTE — When an offender says “It’s not mine” or “I didn’t touch it” regarding illegal drugs, weapons or other contraband found at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, a new investigative tool can reveal the truth.

A Touch DNA forensics kit will allow investigators to rub a specially treated swab on an object to determine everyone who has come in contact with the object. And through a new pilot program in the DOC, the results of the DNA swab will be known in 60 days.

“If we have a suspect object, such as a packet of narcotics, we can swab it and everyone who has touched it will have their DNA register,” explained Robbie Marshall, security threat group coordinator in internal affairs, during a community advisory board meeting Thursday at WVCF.

Since all convicted felons in Indiana are required to submit their DNA sample into a nationwide database, the DNA test will show any inmates in the facility who have come in contact with the item. And if an unknown DNA profile also shows up on the item, investigators will know to look at visitors or staff as possible sources for the object.

“We are concerned about visitors bringing contraband in to the population,” Marshall said, “and we definitely want to stop those visitors from coming in, as well as any staff who might be bringing in narcotics or contraband.”

The objective of the Touch DNA program is to aid in the prosecution of criminal charges, he said, which is helped by the fact that DNA will stay on an object for up to two years, and a sample as small as a grain of salt can be tested for DNA.

In the case that an object tests positive for DNA that is not already in the database, investigators must have enough evidence to suggest who might have touched it, and then go to a county prosecutor to get a warrant for that suspect’s DNA.

“Before we test an object, we have an idea of who has handled it,” Marshall explained.

The project is fairly new at WVCF. In the first two months of the six-month program, three of the 10 swab kits have been used to collect DNA, and those three kits have been sent off to the forensic ID lab in Indianapolis to be processed.

Since it costs the DOC $500 for each kit submitted for testing, investigators are selective in what they send off to the lab. For instance, if a cell phone possibly intended as contraband is found lying in the prison’s public parking lot, that item is not considered for testing. But if a weapon used in a stabbing is found at the scene of the incident, a trained investigator can collect that weapon and do the testing right away. This Touch DNA test is not for fluids such as blood or saliva.

Correctional officer Frank Littlejohn said having trained staff on site to do the DNA testing streamlines the investigation of incidents inside the prison.

“If we have a weapon used for a stabbing, then we can find out not only who had it last, but maybe also who made it and who handled it,” Littlejohn said.

The tests have 100 percent accuracy, Marshall said.

Littlejohn said contraband cell phones and narcotics are both big problems inside DOC now. It is hoped that if offenders and visitors know that this testing can be done, people might be less likely to attempt trafficking with inmates, and the prisoners will be less likely to pick up suspect objects.

The speed of the results is a huge benefit to investigators, Marshall said.

“A 60-day turnaround is pretty quick,” he said.

In the past, submitting such DNA tests to the State Police Laboratory could mean up to a one-year wait for test results, because of the backlog of items to be tested at the lab.

Marshall said other law enforcement agencies in the state are using the Touch DNA testing already, and their success led the DOC to try this program on a six-month trial basis at five facilities around the state.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

 

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