DNA lab helps solve old cold cases

Going for accreditation

Cayman’s DNA lab has found forensic matches on a quarter of the criminal cold cases in which unknown DNA has been found at crime scenes.

According to forensic DNA specialist Jonathan Faris who runs the lab, there are 80 unsolved, or ‘cold’, cases dating back several years in which the DNA of an unknown person was found, and the DNA lab has had about 20 hits on those cases since it first started operating four years ago.

‘As is the case with all investigation databases, we have already had some success with this,’ said Mr. Faris of the database of DNA samples he has built up and input into the system.

‘I don’t know the full circumstances of the cases, so I don’t know how cold these cases are. Some might be cases that are already solved through some other means,’ Mr. Faris said.

Police can legally get a DNA sample from an arrestee in any case, but if that DNA is found to match a sample found at a cold case crime scene, they must then obtain another sample once that person becomes a suspect.

Mr. Faris first came to Cayman from Canada five years ago to help set up the lab and has since given testimony in several cases involving forensic evidence.

One of the high-profile cold cases involving the matching of DNA from a crime scene from several years earlier was a violent rape at the Westin Hotel in 2002. In July this year, Christopher Omar Samuels was sentenced to 12 years in prison for raping an American tourist in the hotel’s public bathroom.

Whenever a person is arrested in Cayman, as well as taking fingerprints of the suspect, police now also take a swab of the inside of the arrestee’s cheek to gather DNA.

That DNA is added to Cayman’s growing database, which has more than 1,000 DNA profiles.

Public relations officer of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, Deborah Denis, said police usually sent DNA samples to the local lab, but that each case was dealt with individually.

‘In normal circumstances, the DNA will be sent to the local lab. There will be some cases where various exhibits will need to be sent overseas. We’ll use whatever resources are suitable for the case,’ she said.

Each DNA sample is taken through a complex process of collection and examination that occur in a series of rooms at the Cayman Islands Hospital’s Forensic Science Laboratory. ‘The route is uni-directional, it all goes one way to ensure there is no cross-contamination,’ explained Mr. Faris.

In one room, only so-called known samples – DNA from a known individual – are dealt with, while in another room, the unknown samples – are processed.

The lab is on the cusp of receiving its accreditation from Forensic Quality Services-International, the United States’ longest established provider of International Organisation for Standardisation accreditation for forensic science testing laboratories.

Although there is no legal requirement for a forensics laboratory to be accredited, Mr. Faris said that accreditation led to an increase in public confidence that a facility has undergone independent scrutiny and has been accepted as operating under accepted industry standards.

He has appeared in local court cases to give testimony on forensic evidence processed in his lab. However, overseas experts are still occasionally required to give evidence in certain instances.

While Mr. Faris welcomed the audit and forthcoming accreditation of the lab, he added: ‘Mistakes and bad things can happen in a lab that is accredited and on the flip side, an unaccredited lab can still do very solid work and be compliant with standards.’

Meeting the accreditation requirements has taken years of documenting the procedures and processes in place at the lab, he said.

Since 2007, the lab has had in place equipment that enables it to operate the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System software, which is used across the United States. As of July, that system contained more than seven million offender profiles.

Although it is not yet in a position to begin paternity testing, Mr. Faris hoped this might be available by the end of this year.