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COUNTY SHERIFF READIES DNA TESTING FACILITY : 2 CRIMINALISTS IN TRAINING.

Byline: Jesse Hiestand Daily News Staff Writer

Nearly eight years after becoming the first county in California to use genetic fingerprinting to convict killers, Ventura County is gearing up to begin DNA testing on its own.

Three rooms physically isolated from the rest of the Sheriff's Department crime lab have been built to house the computers, lab equipment and machines that will extract and analyze DNA samples from suspects and victims.

Due to the possibility of contamination, nothing - not even paper and pens - is allowed to leave the genetic lab once it goes in.

The only exceptions are Michael Parigian and Margaret Schaeffer, the two criminalists being trained in DNA testing.

They have taken three weeklong courses from the state Department of Justice in Sacramento, along with college-level studies in molecular genetics and biochemistry. They now are honing their skills in a series of DNA test runs in preparation for the day, within a year, that they will begin genetic fingerprinting in earnest.

``It's better than any technology we have now to identify the origin of a body-fluid sample,'' Schaeffer said. ``It's such an incredible tool to be able to tell someone that no, this isn't the person, or yes, this is the person.''

DNA evidence isn't new to Ventura County. In 1989, Lynda Axell of Ventura became the first person in the state to be convicted of murder using DNA testing. The genetic patterns in strands of hair found clutched in the victim's hand were found to match the pattern in Axell's blood.

Just a year later, the state's first capital case using DNA evidence ended in Ventura County with Larry David Davis being sentenced to die for sexually assaulting and strangling an Oxnard waitress.

Of course, DNA testing was at the heart of Los Angeles County's murder case against O.J. Simpson, charged with murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

``You can liken DNA to fingerprints. It's every bit of that and more,'' said Cmdr. William Wade, who runs the Sheriff's Department crime lab. ``DNA is absolute. It matches or it doesn't.''

Wade also said plans to begin genetic fingerprinting at the crime lab will not be affected by the recent suspension of its license to test blood and urine samples for alcohol levels.

``We don't see any spillage at all,'' he said. ``They're different disciplines, different areas and different personnel.''

In training runs at the fledgling DNA lab, the criminalists are working to extract the DNA from body-fluid samples mixed with dirt or leaves or placed on a carpet sample.

Situations like this are not uncommon in criminal science, where the key to finding the right suspect can be something as seemingly insignificant as a speck of blood or a drop of saliva.

In fact, the technique they are learning, called polymerase chain reaction or PCR, allows DNA matching even if the sample is degraded by heat, moisture or age, such as with a decomposing body.

Blood, saliva, semen and other body fluids all contain DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecular blueprint of life that is as unique to each person (except identical twins) as their fingerprints.

Fingerprint analysis is of course one of the areas the crime lab specializes in, along with ballistics, toxicology, trace evidence and blood analysis.

The latter is used to link a suspect to a crime by comparing his blood type and blood proteins to evidence found at a crime scene.

This method is useful, Schaeffer said, but its results vary depending on the specific makeup of a person's blood.

It is not as accurate as DNA testing, which is expected to be a powerful new tool for the crime lab to use in the cases deemed most serious, Schaeffer noted. It is expected to be used about 70 times per year, Parigian said.

Such precision is welcomed by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

While DNA can identify a perpetrator with accuracy approaching 100 percent, it can just as easily exonerate someone.

``If you can be excluded by competent evidence, it's better than an alibi,'' said criminal defense attorney Willard Wiksell. ``If you're accused of any kind of serious crime and the blood doesn't match or the body fluids say conclusively that you couldn't be the donor, then that's a tremendous defense.''

A DNA test alone is of little legal value without the expert testimony of the scientist or technician who performed it. For this reason, the training Parigian and Schaeffer receive is crucial because they will be called to testify as experts within a year of their first official DNA tests for the crime lab.

Until then, lab officials will continue to pay Cellmark Diagnostics in Maryland more than $1,500 to analyze each set of DNA samples.

Similar testing in the sheriff's crime lab is expected to cost as little as $120. Further cost savings are expected because prosecutors will not have to hire Cellmark experts for trial testimony.

Construction of the DNA lab, which began in June, and the installation of equipment will cost about $150,000, with most of the training being provided for free, Wade said.

The crime lab does not need to be licensed for DNA testing, but it does plan to get accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, a nationally recognized organization.

Most crime labs in California are likewise gearing up to do DNA testing, with the eventual goal being to create a computerized genetic database that could help investigators solve crimes.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 13, 1997
Words:912
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