Rapid DNA awaits scientific endorsement for use in sex assault investigations
The rape of a homeless woman in Kentucky was solved faster than anticipated thanks to Rapid DNA biometrics, an instrument that develops a DNA profile in under two hours, disrupting the way rape investigations are conducted, writes NBC News.
Critics, on the other hand, warn that the technology is not regulated and, because it is still new, it might not always be accurate especially in rape cases where multiple DNA samples are involved. The FBI is also cautious about the technology, while judges have not allowed the evidence to be used at trial. Privacy advocates fear the technology could make mistakes and lead to abuse.
“This blunt-force instrument that is designed to get results fast, especially with sexual assaults, is problematic,” said Terri Rosenblatt, supervisor of the DNA unit at the Legal Aid Society in New York.
Rapid DNA leverages technology funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and developed by Massachusetts- and Colorado-based ANDE Corporation. It has so far been used in identifying victims in a California boat fire in September, by Edmonton Police in Canada and in verifying the familial relations of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Rapid DNA is a new and disruptive technology,” said James Davis, a former FBI agent who is the chief federal officer for ANDE. “I think in time, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a long period it will be accepted as the standard. Rapid DNA without question will reduce the sexual assault kit backlog and hopefully do away with it,” Davis said.
The company’s competitor Thermo Fisher Scientific does not sell its solution as an instrument for sexual assault kits.
Rapid DNA devices are the size of a large microwave oven and cost around $250,000. It does not require technical expertise to be operated and creates a profile in less than two hours, while traditional tools would take as long as weeks.
While the FBI is looking into producing DNA fingerprints during arrests, the agency doesn’t currently allow Rapid DNA results on crime scene samples to be added to CODIS – the national criminal database. For now, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, among the first to pilot the technology, is sticking with single-source DNA, while ANDE is testing rapid DNA on lower level cases such as burglary.
Since 2015, there have been 80 convictions in the U.S. thanks to rapid DNA, no sexual assaults involved.
“Sex assault kits are classic mixture scenarios,” explains Robert Mestman, a prosecutor in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. “Based on our experience, mixtures are too complex for rapid instruments to handle. So we send those to the crime lab.”
According to Vincent Figarelli, who runs the crime lab at the Arizona Department of Public Safety, “the issue with sex assault is that pretty much every case is a mixture,” as there is no peer-reviewed scientific study to confirm the accuracy of the tool on sexual assault kits.
ANDE says an independent lab found Rapid DNA compliant with FBI standards, but there is no research on its use on sexual assault kits.