Source: NBC News
By Jon Schuppe
Some critics caution that the technique is still new and may not deliver the clear results that its manufacturer claims.
Early one morning in April, a homeless woman sleeping in an abandoned house in Louisville, Kentucky, was jolted awake by a stranger who pulled her bedding over her head and raped her, according to police.
The 29-year-old woman was taken to the University of Louisville Hospital, where nurses examined her for traces of DNA that could identify her assailant.
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Such answers in rape cases typically take months, and sometimes more than a year — delays that can be traumatic for victims and diminish the odds of anyone getting prosecuted.
But the alleged attack occurred while the Kentucky State Police laboratory was evaluating a new “rapid DNA” instrument, which is marketed as a way to identify suspected rapists in hours, while victims are still being treated. If the technology works, it could revolutionize the way rapes are investigated in America, where hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits remain untested and only a third of reported rapes result in an arrest.
As part of the first real-world test of the technology on sex assault cases, hospital nurses in the Louisville case took extra samples from the alleged victim and ran them through rapid DNA equipment. The device developed a DNA profile of a potential suspect in three hours. Within weeks, a man was under arrest.
The case, still pending trial, reflects the power and the potential of rapid DNA testing as it slowly spreads through the criminal justice system. That growth, driven by two competing companies, has unfolded with little government oversight: While the FBI urges caution, and judges have not yet allowed rapid DNA evidence to be presented at trial, the manufacturers have pitched the technology directly to local agencies. Police have used rapid DNA in ways that push the boundaries of standard law enforcement practice, to analyze crime scene evidence and take DNA samples from people suspected of low-level crimes.
That approach has concerned privacy advocates, criminal defense lawyers and some crime laboratory officials, who warn that the unregulated technology remains at risk of mistakes and abuse. These critics caution that the technique is still new and may not deliver the clear results that the companies claim. That is particularly a concern in rape cases, which are complex because they involve mixtures of multiple people’s DNA.
Terri Rosenblatt, who supervises the DNA unit at the Legal Aid Society in New York, said the instruments haven’t been proven reliable on such mixtures. Errors, she said, could lead to false hits, which could make it hard for suspects to overcome a presumption of guilt.
“This blunt-force instrument that is designed to get results fast, especially with sexual assaults, is problematic,” she said.
Proponents of the technology say early tests show it’s working, and critics and government bureaucrats are too slow to embrace rapid DNA, which could one day replace traditional DNA analysis.
“Rapid DNA is a new and disruptive technology,” said James Davis, a former FBI agent who is the chief federal officer for ANDE, one of the two companies marketing rapid DNA to law enforcement. ANDE worked with Kentucky police to test the technology on sexual assault cases, including the one in Louisville. “I think in time, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a long period,” Davis said, “it will be accepted as the standard.”
ANDE’s competitor, Thermo Fisher Scientific, has not marketed its instruments for use on sexual assault kits, according to crime laboratory officials who have negotiated with the company. Thermo Fisher did not respond to requests for comment.