How forensic DNA may finally fulfill its promise

By Simon Cooper

Presented By

Bonnie M. Wells

In the decade since forensic science became a television drama staple, DNA profiling has undergone sweeping technical advances, giving it the potential to transform law enforcement. But, contrary to what one may learn from watching prime-time crime, the tool is far from the investigator's trick of choice; in fact, to many police forces in the US, it's an exotic and expensive forensic luxury.

Nowhere has this been felt more acutely than in investigations of the missing and the unidentified dead. The frustrating reality for those involved in actual cases is that, despite the progress in DNA fingerprinting, there exists no functional national system giving investigators universal access to forensic DNA resources—neither the ability to collect DNA from relatives of the missing, nor the facility to access data from investigations that do produce DNA.

One-hundred thousand people are missing in the US on any given day, and there are currently upwards of 40,000 unidentified bodies in coroners' offices around the country--more than half of them homicide victims. Bill Hagmaier, executive director of the International Homicide Investigators Association (IHIA), elucidates the point: "That's at least 20-25,000 murders where justice has never been served, and around 20,000 murderers running free to kill again." Of the 40,000, just 5,700 are registered with the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), an FBI-managed database containing reports of missing persons and related details.

Ideally, an unidentified body in Tallahassee could be matched to a mother's DNA sample given in Seattle—but there's no money to collect the sample. Even if there were, the body lies unidentified because there's no way of linking the data.

There are 3,000 coroners and medical examiners in this country, many of whom have no investigative training. Some don't even have a computer.As far as the collection is concerned, it's mainly a function of finances: At around $2,000 for a nuclear DNA profile and up to $8,000 for a mitochondrial DNA profile, many police forces and coroners simply cannot afford to make use of forensic DNA in their investigations. Even when they do get DNA data, says Hagmaier, a former profiler with the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, there is the added problem of the vast fragmentation of US law enforcement. "There are 17,000 police departments in this country, half of which have fewer than 10 officers," he says. "There are 3,000 coroners and medical examiners, many of whom have no investigative training. Many of these forces and coroners don't even have a computer, never mind a computer capable of using the databases we do have."

Hagmaier and others are working to change all this by addressing each obstacle.

Jerry Nance, a senior case manager with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, VA, is connecting the dots by exploiting a little-used arm of CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, made famous by CSI and Law & Order.

As things currently stand, says Nance, who spent 26 years as a special agent with the Navy's Criminal Investigative Service before joining NCMEC, his job is like "coal mining with kitchen utensils." The result is that parents of missing children are forced to "endure nothing less than a living hell, never knowing what happened to their child."

NCMEC discovered a part of CODIS that has not been dramatized: On one side is a database for samples taken from unidentified remains or from DNA trace evidence of the missing; on the other, a database containing reference samples from the families of the missing.

The problem is that there's hardly any data in the databases. This is where Bill Hagmaier comes in.

Two years ago he convinced the Department of Justice to launch a working group on unidentified remains.

Once it was underway, Hagmaier reached out to an old friend, Professor Arthur Eisenberg, whose science was instrumental in making forensic DNA such a promising tool. Eisenberg now heads the System Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas (UNT), a research facility that pioneered the applications of DNA profiling and is now at the forefront of efforts to make them as widely available as possible.

With Eisenberg's help, Hagmaier's group figured out how they might solve the problem.

The Center at UNT receives funding from President Bush's DNA Initiative, a billion-dollar program administered by the Department of Justice, aimed at improving the utilization of DNA within the criminal justice system. Now, thanks in part to Hagmaier, the Center has a unique mandate within the DNA Initiative, says Eisenberg: Any police force can submit DNA for profiling, for free. "It doesn't matter how big or how small the agency. They can come to us and we will do the profiling for nothing."

With this system in place, Eisenberg gives rural sheriffs the same forensic muscle as the FBI, helping to solve crimes that have gone unpunished or even undetected.

But that's only half the equation: Just as crucially, Eisenberg's was the first non-law enforcement lab enabled to upload new data onto CODIS's unidentified human remains and reference samples databases.

Eisenberg's UNT lab yielded results almost immediately, putting faces and names to a number of remains that had lain unidentified for years. In addition, the Center has also helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, identifying unrecognizable remains in Mississippi. And NCMEC has used the system to identify remains that had gone unidentified for decades.

"We started out small, but now we are blossoming," says Eisenberg, who is expanding his lab's capacity, recruiting more analysts, and automating and streamlining the DNA extraction process. The goal, he says, is a "realistically achievable ambition to identify every one of the tens of thousands of unidentified remains we know about. Every one of them. They deserve nothing less."

And that will make TV reality.


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Bonnie M. Wells

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