Former Guilford County Sheriff’s Department staff and others responsible for helping establish the rapid DNA analysis program three years ago were quick to criticize a decision by Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers on Monday, March 25 to end the program and sell the machine used to test the DNA samples.
The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department purchased the machine in 2016 for about $200,000 in order to provide the in-house capability to solve crimes, eliminate suspects and determine guilt, as well as for other purposes. However, Rogers, who took office in December, stated in a press release Monday that the department was ending the program because the results were unaccredited and couldn’t be used in court, and because, he said, the department could handle the DNA tests more efficiently and affordably by using the State of North Carolina’s DNA laboratory or by sending the samples to private labs.
Former Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Colonel Randy Powers, who helped implement and oversee the department’s rapid DNA program, said the machine and the capabilities it brought were a very valuable asset to the department and he added that it’s a huge mistake to end the program.
“The difference is that, with the state lab, you sometimes have to wait two years for the results, but with rapid DNA we had a two-hour turnaround,” Powers said.
The massive delays at the state lab have been the subject of numerous news articles in recent years and, at times, rapists and other criminals have gone free because of those delays.
Powers said the ability to quickly process DNA samples in house proved to be extremely helpful in many ways.
“About 15 months ago there was a suicide, a man hanging in the woods with no ID, but with a lot of money in his pocket, and there was no way to identify him,” he said.
Powers said that, using the in-house DNA test, they were able to identify the man, who was an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
He also said that, when the department has to wait on results from the state lab, perpetrators may walk free and commit other crimes while the DNA samples are stuck in Raleigh for months or years.
According to Powers, purchasing the machine and starting the program was expensive but that was the major cost and it makes no sense to sell the machine now.
“I heard they already had a buyer for the machine,” Powers said on Monday, a few hours after the Sheriff’s Department’s announcement. “If it’s so useless, then why is someone else buying it?”
Powers said the state lab does not charge anything, but the results take a very long time and in some cases departments can’t ever get results from that lab no matter how long they wait.
“The state will not run every type of case,” he said.
The state lab is so overwhelmed, it has to prioritize what it will run – and that usually means rape and murder cases are the ones that get moved to the top of the list.
“Sometimes they will just tell you no,” Powers said.
He said this is the latest of many truly baffling moves made by the new Sheriff’s Department.
Roy Swiger, CEO at ImpeDx Diagnostics Inc., is a DNA analysis expert who helped set up the California Dept. of Justice’s DNA crime lab, has been a director of a forensic intelligence laboratory for the US government, has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and ran the company that built the machine used by the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department. He said that any suggestion that the results from that machine are anything less than reliable are completely unfounded.
He said that samples analyzed from that type of machine were in the national DNA database, which is the highest standard of qualification for DNA results.
Swiger also contested a statement made in the Sheriff’s Department’s press release that no findings rendered by the equipment could be entered in a court of law and result in a suspect being convicted.
“They are admissible and they know this,” Swiger said of the results from the machine.
He said the results can be admitted in court though he added that an opposing attorney can challenge those results based on the fact that the results are unaccredited or based on other reasons and then the court will hear the debate and make a decision.
According to Swiger, outsourcing the tests to private companies generally costs from $500 to $1,000, while using the in-house rapid DNA machine will run about $120 per sample.
He said one reason the company developed the machines is that it allows law enforcement departments to focus on the crimes that most frequently affect that community.
“There is a backlog at every state lab across the US,” he said, “and they have to prioritize their samples.”
He said that means that rape cases and homicides get done first at state labs. He added that it makes sense to prioritize those cases; however, he said, that leaves a huge hole since most crimes committed in a community are property crimes.
“Typically, you don’t get property crimes cleared,” he said of the state lab’s practices regarding the testing of DNA samples.
“The advantage is that it enables a police department to have its own DNA forensics lab,” he said, and allows the department to apply its resources to its biggest problems, the crimes that most frequently affect that community.”