York County DNA lab to help ease backlog of cases

No longer will police in York County have to wait several months to a year for a speck of saliva to match a burglary suspect or a blood stain to uncover the identity of a wanted killer.

Housed in the lower level of the York County Sheriff’s Office at the Moss Justice Center in York is a fully equipped and newly opened DNA lab. The lab was recently accredited by Forensic Quality Services, the nation’s longest established accrediting body for forensic laboratories.

Two technicians operate the lab – a supervisor and a DNA analyst. They work among machines that can mix chemicals in a tornado-like swirl, and storage spaces stockpiled with evidence packets.

In a room where the door is etched with a sign that reads “Danger Laser Beams: Do Not Look Directly At Laser Lights”, a tall machine that makes beeping noises and glows – called a robot – dispatches silver cylinders and rotating slides that will imprint DNA profiles into a computer and help analysts determine if the DNA under a slide matches evidence in a case.

“You will see this one on the TV shows,” said Cristy Kissel, the lab’s DNA technical leader. “It’s a genetic analyzer.”

In a room next to it is the Hamilton STARlet, capable of extracting pieces of DNA from clothes and other materials and safeguard them against contamination.

With that arsenal at their disposal, Kissel and analyst Emily Campbell will be able to test DNA collected by any law enforcement agency in York County. The aim is to give authorities forensic answers and resolve cases quickly.

Before the York County lab opened, law enforcement officials relied on the State Law Enforcement Division’s crime forensics lab to test DNA and evidence. But the SLED lab – which conducts similar tests from police agencies across the state – is experiencing a backlog. It was not uncommon for York County authorities to wait months, even a year, for results from a DNA test, Sheriff Bruce Bryant said.

“If we have something real serious,” it can be tested immediately and the process for results expedited.

But, Bryant said, the York County lab is not meant to work miracles.

“DNA is not like what you see on TV,” he said, acknowledging there is still a process to the science. “You don’t just drop it in a machine” and get results.

Bryant stressed the lab isn’t a tool to only incriminate; it also exonerates if DNA testing can prove someone accused of a crime is innocent.

Collecting DNA, testing it, writing reports and receiving results can take at least eight hours “if we needed to,” Kissel said. Sometimes, she said, she’s asked to put a rush order on certain DNA samples for “really serious” cases. Other times, she and Campbell have to process several items of clothing and submit samples for a weeks-long screening process.

Kissel said she’s hoping that, for most cases, the process takes only 60 to 90 days.

The kinds of evidence the Sheriff’s Office lab will test can range from blood, saliva and seminal fluid to nails, fingerprints and bones.

The lab has been three years in the making, Kissel said.

When she first started working at the Sheriff’s Office, the lab was little more than a room in need of a retrofit. She spent the last three years bringing in new equipment and preparing her work space.

The lab, equipment and much of Kissel’s salary for three years were funded by drug forfeiture money and grants. Now that it’s been accredited, the lab falls under the auspices of county funding, costing about $125,000 a year to operate.

One day, it’s possible Kissel and Campbell might start looking at some of the county’s older unsolved, cold cases. But, for now, their priority rests with addressing other backlogs from police agencies.

Already, Kissel said, investigators with the Rock Hill, Fort Mill and York police departments have submitted DNA samples to be tested.