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By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff
In countless murder mysteries, investigators race to identify a serial killer before he kills again. In this real-life story, efforts by law enforcement to track down a murderer had their share of twists, turns, dead ends and eureka moments that led, in time, to the embrace of DNA collection and the creation of the first rapid DNA booking station in the nation.
Killers on the loose
Between 1992 and 2003, not one but at least two serial killers menanced the community in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1998 the FBI introduced a national DNA database. However, Louisiana was only in the early phases of database implementation. The Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, was designed to assist law enforcement by providing potential investigative information in cases where crime scene evidence yielded a DNA profile but no suspect has been identified. It blends forensic science and computer technology into a tool that enables federal, state and local forensic laboratories to exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically, thereby linking crimes to each other, to known offenders and identifying missing or unidentified individuals.
“In the early 2000s, local law enforcement agencies were investigating a string of female homicide cases. The city was really on edge. There was DNA evidence left at many of the crime scenes by an unknown suspect,” said Joanie Brocato, who in 2002 became one of the early DNA analysts hired by the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab (LSPCL). “DNA analysis in Louisiana was in its infancy. Without a centralized DNA database to compare DNA profiles, DNA needed to be collected from a suspect or person of interest, sent to the laboratory and then the DNA analysis could be performed. The process then required a manual comparison by the DNA analyst to the DNA obtained from the evidence and from each suspect or person of interest.”
When an eyewitness reported seeing a white male in a white pickup truck in the area of one of the crime scenes, law enforcement officers focused their attention on swabbing men who met that description, to no avail.
In March 2003, when a new type of DNA test was available, analysis revealed the suspected perpetrator was not a white male but of African descent. Investigators made the information public and developed additional persons of interest. A local agency had been investigating other cases and had developed a potential suspect. The suspect’s DNA was collected and submitted to the LSPCL for DNA analysis.
The DNA profile obtained from the suspect, Derrick Todd Lee, matched the DNA profile from some of the crime scenes. Lee was apprehended, convicted, sentenced to death and died in prison awaiting execution.
In February 2004, tire tracks found at a crime scene led to the identification and apprehension of a second serial killer, Sean Vincent Gillis, whose DNA matched samples left at other crime scenes. Gillis was convicted of eight murders between 1994 and 2004 and remains in a Louisiana prison.
A revelation that led to innovation
During the timeframe of the serial homicides, Louisiana public authorities and law enforcement agencies were eager to apply lessons learned and expand the use of DNA analysis to solve crimes. Louisiana moved forward with enacting legislation that pursued not only the collection of DNA from convicted offenders but from those arrested for all felonies and certain misdemeanors. Louisiana became one of the first states to authorize collection of DNA upon arrest. “If we can collect fingerprints upon arrest, we should be able to collect DNA,” said Brocato.
Now, more than 30 other states and the federal government have DNA arrestee legislation. Although each state’s law vary, in general DNA arrestee legislation authorizes the collection of DNA samples from individuals arrested and charged with certain crimes.
From 2002 to present, Louisiana State Police worked to streamline and embed the DNA collection into the booking process. Improvements in the process included an automatic workflow, verification of DNA on file with LSPCL and charge eligibility for DNA collection. With the most recent improvements in both DNA analysis equipment and the DNA database, now the booking agent collects, processes and enrolls the arrestee DNA profile into CODIS and will automatically receive a CODIS hit notification in just over 90 minutes, with only a couple minutes of hands-on time.
The advent of rapid DNA
Rapid DNA is a fully automated, hands-free process of developing a DNA profile from a cheek swab without human intervention. States with laws that allow DNA analysis upon arrest can submit a qualifying arrestee DNA profile to the CODIS database directly from the booking station, without having to send the sample to the state crime lab first. Any CODIS search matches will be communicated automatically to the investigating and booking agencies while the arrestee is still in custody. Real-time match information can make a positive impact on decision-making within the criminal justice system by separating low-risk offenders from those who pose a serious public safety concern and allow for further investigation in serious cases, before an offender is released.
When Brocato first learned about rapid DNA she could envision how this technology could help further the Louisiana DNA booking process. In 2012, LSPCL began working with the FBI and was later joined by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office (EBRSO). The Louisiana agencies collaborated with the FBI and other states to develop a program that integrated rapid DNA analysis into the booking environment.
Making the process work
LSPCL and EBRSO participated in a rapid DNA booking station pilot study, and one of Brocato’s biggest concerns was to make sure the electronic workflow functioned correctly and the process was able to ensure the correct information was relayed to all the required softwares. “If there was a hit to the database, we had to ensure the correct information would be communicated electronically back to the booking station, the crime lab and the investigating law enforcement agency,” said Brocato.
After evaluating the rapid DNA system and workflow, LSPCL developed policies and procedures for incorporating the Thermo Fisher Scientific RapidHIT ID Booking System into the booking process. LSPCL then worked with EBRSO to develop its own policies that complied with federal and state laws and operating standards.
The final step was getting the authority to operate the rapid DNA booking station from the FBI. When approval was given, Louisiana became the first state to incorporate RapidHIT ID Booking System into a booking station and went live at EBRSO in August 2022.
Making a quick hit
“Within the first few weeks, EBRSO pretty rapidly received several CODIS hits,” said Brocato. “Two hits were to crime scene DNA from two unsolved cases in the DISC, DNA Index of Special Concern, and the third an out-of-state hit. Within just a few short hours of collection, an arrestee’s DNA profile was searched at the national level and hit to a DNA profile from an unsolved case in another state ─ a state that does not yet have an arrestee law. These hits show the power of rapid DNA and the speed and connectivity it brings to investigations.”
As the Baton Rouge murders indicated, and history has shown us, when offenders go unidentified, crime continues. Fortunately, decades after the murders, Louisiana is well-positioned to make sure the next crime wave gets solved much more quickly.
“Preventing future victims is always front and center to us in the criminal justice community,” said Brocato. “Advancements of DNA technology like rapid DNA, that help ensure every qualifying arrestee’s DNA is automatically enrolled and searched against the national DNA database, are a game-changing tool that provide answers in real-time, giving the law enforcement and the criminal justice community more timely investigative breakthroughs to protect the innocent and solve and prevent crime.”