Cayman’s DNA lab is making strides

Most of us are familiar with the use of DNA in solving crimes through television series like CSI and Bones.

Recently making international news, DNA evidence led to murder charges against Yale lab tech Raymond Clark III, in the death of graduate researcher Annie M. Le in September.

Closer to home, earlier this year, DNA collected from a violent rape of an American tourist in the Westin hotel’s public bathroom in 2002 was matched to Christopher Omar Samuels. In July, he was sentenced to 12 years.

Along with collecting fingerprints, since 2006, the RCIPS has been collecting DNA samples from individuals who are arrested.

The samples, known as buccal swabs, are collected from inside the cheek and placed in secure storage.

Until recently the samples that needed to be analyzed were sent overseas to DNA labs in the United States, but now samples can be analyzed here on-Island, says John Faris, who heads up the lab.

Unlike CSI’s flashy sets complete with mood lighting, Cayman’s newly accredited DNA lab is located in an immaculate, orderly set of modest rooms tucked away in a corner of the George Town hospital.

They just happen to be full of sophisticated high-tech equipment. And while some machines and instruments are used to analyze blood, saliva and semen samples for drugs and alcohol, others can extract the DNA from them.

Like a space-age photocopier, millions of copies of the purified DNA are then created so that they can be more easily “read” by a machine.

Little pieces of the DNA, which have been treated with coloured dye, are recorded using laser and a camera as they whiz by, sending the information through a software program that produces a “picture” of the little pieces as a series of coloured spikes on a graph.

Each person in the world’s graph reading is slightly different, meaning different samples can be compared relatively easily thanks to the major advances being made in the field.

“If you were to look at one region of the DNA from different people you would find a lot of different pieces,” says Mr. Faris.

Cayman’s DNA database
Cayman police started taking buccal swabs in 2006, and in 2007 Cayman’s DNA database became active.

It is compatible with both the UK system and the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database.

The first phase of setting up the database involved acquiring all the CODIS software and all the IT hardware, and Mr. Faris has been trained as a CODIS administrator.

However, he’s not exactly new to forensics, having previously worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before arriving in Cayman charged with setting up the lab and the database four years ago.

Faced with a backlog of samples, Mr. Faris says he is using a triage approach to ensure that samples from the violent and sexual offences go in first. He says the triage decision was made largely due to the Estella Scott case.

“It might be why we have had 24 hits on previous incidents, the majority which were put in in the last year,” he said.

“We work a lot with the RCIPS so we are really serving them.”

In the case of Omar Samuels, a cold case with no suspects, a DNA profile generated by a third party lab for another case was matched to a sample in the database.

Samples entered into the Cayman Islands database are compared to others already in the database. However, samples from victims and elimination profiles from close friends and relatives are not entered.

In the end, Mr. Faris is hopeful that the database will serve the purposes it has in other jurisdictions.

For one, it is already proving to be helpful in solving cold cases here in Cayman.

It’s also speeding up the DNA analysis process. After all, timing can mean a lot.

Further, Mr. Faris sees another benefit.

“Judging from other jurisdictions it helps nip criminal careers in the bud,” he says.

Many criminal careers escalate.

“With the database and a comprehensive policy for entering the information we can catch people early on in their criminal careers,” he said.

“Of course, it would be nice to stop them even earlier.”

Until that time, Cayman will just have to count on the DNA lab to do what it can.

International DNA cases:

Since its first use in a criminal trial in the US  in 1987,DNA evidence has proved invaluable  in the conviction of killers.

Green River Killer:
In the 1980s and 1990s, dozens of women, mostly prostitutes, disappeared from the Seattle-Tacoma area. Among the suspects was Gary Ridgway. Further testing using new DNA technology matched him to at least three victims. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 48 consecutive life sentences.

Robert Picton
Some of the largest amounts of DNA samples ever taken, was in the case of pig farmer Robert William “Willie” Pickton. Pickton  was convicted of the second-degree murders of six women and charged in the deaths of an additional twenty. Trial evidence showed he disposed of their bodies by feeding body parts to his pigs or taking them to a rendering plant.

More than 600,000 samples from the Pickton property were taken for DNA analysis and DNA samples from more than 1,000 people were compared with DNA profiles found on the Pickton farm.

In December 2007 he was sentenced to life in prison.

Miscarriages of justice
DNA testing has also been instrumental in overturning convictions and proving innocence. In June, the New York Times reported that more than 200 US prisoners have been exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence, almost all of whom had been incarcerated for murder or rape.

Sean Hodgson was   released earlier this year after spending 30 years in a U.K jail for the rape and murder of barmaid Teresa de Simone. Hodgson who had mental health problems was convicted on his own confession. When the case was reopened it was found DNA at the crime scene did not match a sample from Hodgson.

Delays in processing can have dire consequences. A DNA sample belonging to sex-killer Paul Bernardo was stored in a lab for months until it was analyzed. The DNA sample had been collected at rape as evidence in the hunt for the so-called “Scarborough rapist,” which turned out to be Bernardo. While the DNA samples languished in the lab, Bernardo kidnapped and murdered Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French.