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Solving car crimes with DNA

This story is basically a commercial for Harris County’s crime lab – Did you know that since they have no testing backlog on personal crime cases they can focus on property crimes? It’s true! – but it’s still pretty cool.

But do they look this good doing it?

For the last few years, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences aided area law enforcement in solving property crimes by testing evidence for “touch DNA” – microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off when an object, like a car steering wheel, is touched. The technology can be used even if the suspect is wearing gloves because there’s a high likelihood the skin cells were transferred onto the gloves when the perpetrator was slipping them on.

“It was a pretty incredible tool for us to have to identify some of these suspects,” said Sgt. Terry Wilson, of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office auto-theft division. “These (burglary of a motor vehicle) cases are some of the hardest cases for law enforcement to solve because there’s almost never any eyewitnesses. There’s very rarely any good evidence left behind, fingerprint evidence and things like that, and once we started recovering some of this DNA, it was pretty exciting there for a while.”

DNA testing is a practice typically reserved for personal crimes like rape and murder. However, the forensic institute, formerly the medical examiner’s office, has also been performing DNA testing on evidence – containing either skin cells or bodily fluids, like blood and saliva – from property crime cases such as car break-ins and home invasions.

Since January 2008, the forensic institute made more than 3,000 matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database, or CODIS, a national database used to store DNA profiles. Of those, about 75 percent were for property crime cases.

I believe they call those “epithelials” on the “CSI” shows. This is a great use of the technology, especially since property crimes generally have a low solve rate. But – you knew there would be a but, right? – there’s one small problem:

[C]ounty budget cuts have suspended testing in the auto theft division for now.

Oops. Well, maybe with the budget picture improving for Harris County, they’ll be able to get this back on track soon. Try not to have your car broken into until then, OK?

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2 Comments

  1. Steven says:

    I’d like to know:
    How many DNA submissions were sent in?
    How many convictions did it truly yield?
    How much did it cost in total, including any grants since those are still public funds?

    Further concerns:
    If the County has so much extra capacity to test for property crimes, why does it not process all rape kits for cases that occur inside county limits? This would, of course, include those that also fall into the jurisdiction of the city but folks in Houston county pay taxes so why shouldn’t they receive something in return?

  2. [...] a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers [...]

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