Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

New DNA program at DU could help solve property crimes

A burglar makes off with a homeowner’s valuables and disappears into the night, leaving not so much as a fingerprint for detectives to go on.

But he may have left something even more valuable — that drop of blood from where he broke a window to gain entrance, a few hairs left in a cap he dropped or even a droplet of saliva from a chewed sunflower seed.

DNA, the genetic code that makes us who we are, is commonly used as authorities track killers and rapists, but until now it’s been considered too expensive and time consuming for overworked state laboratories to use for property crimes, such as burglaries and car thefts.

Working with five northern Colorado law enforcement agencies, the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) unit based at DU’s Denver Research Institute is helping establish a DNA lab dedicated to solving property crimes.

It’s a new program, evolving from a federal demonstration project and cooperation between DU, counties, cities and the state of Colorado. NLECTC Assistant Director Steve Allison says the resulting partnership has shown solid results in its first year, and he says there’s movement toward making the project permanent and expanding it.

“It’s important to solve these property crimes because they can lead to much more serious crimes,” Allison says. “The classic example, a peeping Tom progresses to burglary and then to rape.”

The DU biology department’s DNA lab also has joined in the effort, providing a graduate student who has gone on to earn DNA certification from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) lab, where she works full-time focusing on property crimes. Molecular biology professor Phillip Danielson says master’s candidate Sarah Lewis is his third student in recent years to go from DU’s DNA lab to the workforce.

The efforts help law enforcement establish a “library” of collected DNA evidence that can be referenced for years into the future, helping solve any other crimes the suspect may become involved in.

And as technology advances in the real world and crime scene investigators in the world of television perform scientific miracles, juries have come to expect prosecutors to have forensic evidence, Allison says.

Before working with Danielson and the NLECTC, Weld County Sheriff John Cooke says investigators were often frustrated by the lack of resources. With the CBI lab swamped with DNA requests for violent crimes, property crimes didn’t get priority. And juries, he says, want the same degree of technology they see on TV shows.

“They expect the world,” he says. “The CSI effect is a real problem nationwide. Juries say, ‘Gosh, I saw that on TV. How come they didn’t to this or that?’ It’s a real problem for prosecutors.”

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