Cracking Cold Cases - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

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Cracking Cold Cases

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February 19, 2004

Albany-- The Justice Department reported 1.4 million violent crimes in 2001, and every day dozens of Americans become victims of violence. Sometimes these cases go unsolved for days, months and even years.

But biotechnology is slowly turning back the hands of time and enabling law enforcement to solve some very old cases.

Images of the aftermath of some of Southwest Georgia's violent crimes are the beginning of the investigation for detectives who will work to find and put the suspects behind bars.

"We have a female about 5' 4". She's got red hair. The neighbor said there was some sort of an argument. She was shot we do know that. Here's the shell casings. We have one, two, three, four, five shell casings." Tifton Police Detectives Lt. Porter Jackson and Melissa Wood set up a mock murder scene.

It's only a few square feet in size, but is teaming with evidence. "Let's see what we've got here. Okay, she's red-headed. We've got some blonde hair here. Hand me one more. We'll collect this here. This is probably either going to be the assailant or maybe even a relative, but we'll go on and collect this as number 6," says Detective Jackson.

As they scan every inch of the scene they collect cups, a bloody knife, and a sample of blood droplets scattered along the floor, all evidence that could contain information leading to a specific suspect. Dioxyriboneucleic Acid, or DNA, is found in virtually every cell of the body. It's in hair, saliva, perspiration, blood, semen, tissue, skin, and every organ. It's like a fingerprint of a person's genetic makeup and barring identical twins, no two samples are alike.

"We've learned to work with very, very small amounts of DNA, which has practical applications in forensics for being able to get evidence that would have been impossible in years past," Albany State University Forensics Professor Seyi Vanderpoye says the DNA research field has grown exponentially over the past few years. Even the smallest sample is enough to decode the identity of it's donor.

"The way the technique works is called preliminary chain reaction. It takes ine molecule and produces 2 of it and if you do about 30 cycles you end up with about a million or thirty million more than what you started with," More than enough to connect a criminal to his crime. After detectives collect DNA evidence from their crime scene, they'll use it to help catch their suspect, but it doesn't end there.

Through Georgia's new DNA database, they can link criminals to crimes all over the country "In 1998 the GBI actually began participation in the CODIS Database. CODIS stands for Combined DNA Indexing System," says GBI Special Agent John Heinen.

And it may be the perfect fusion between biotechnology and a computer application. CODIS currently contains more than 1.5 million DNA profiles from 48 U.S. states.

Each time a felon is convicted his DNA is recorded into the system. "We have the ability to pursue criminals that may come into the state of Georgia, commit one single crime or several crimes and leave the state, and we have access if they are arrested at a later date," That's exactly what happened recently for Douglas GBI agents.

CODIS helped put this man behind bars. The brutal rape of a Brantley County woman had agents stumped for two years, they had DNA, but no suspect. It wasn't until their sample matched Shannon Lee Marz's, a man arrested in Virginia for auto theft, that agents could close their case.

"I don't want to say they give up hope, but they see after a year or two goes by that the odds of solving a case decrease tremendously. We on the other hand try not to let go of the hope and especially when new technology arises. It actually took us some time to find that victim to let them know that her we solved your case."

And that's just one success story. The FBI has a list of CODIS success stories on their website, proof the system is putting the heat back in the ability for law enforcement to crack cold cases.

Besides linking DNA evidence in 48 states, CODIS can also match profiles from 18 other countries. Since it was launched in 1998 to December of last year, the CODIS system has aided 11,220 investigations nationwide.

In Georgia alone the DNA database has aided nearly 360 investigations.

posted at 4:30PM by dave.miller@walb.com

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