New DNA software is big step forward

DNA testing has played a prominent role in law enforcement and criminal trials for less than 30 years. But with stunning advancements in both DNA and computer technology, DNA evidence is likely to become an even more indispensable tool in determining the guilt – and often the innocence – of criminal suspects.

York County is fortunate to be one of the first recipients in the state of new software that allows investigators to narrow down a specific DNA profile in samples that contain profiles from multiple people. The software – Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS – was recently purchased by the York County Sheriff’s Office with a federal grant of nearly $50,000.

With CODIS, work that used to take hours can be completed in a matter of minutes. The software can determine the probability that a profile is contained in the sample or, just as importantly, whether the potential match is too weak to keep pursuing.

Lab employees now are being trained how to use the software and how to testify about the evidence it produces in court. But once the system is up and running, York County will be one of only a handful of agencies in the state that operates the software.

This is another big step in the evolution of the county’s ability to process its own DNA samples. Much of the credit for that goes to Sheriff Bruce Bryant.

Bryant, who plans to retire at the end of the year, led the effort to establish a local DNA lab at the sheriff’s office in the Moss Justice Center to help reduce the backlog of cases. Three years in the making, the lab was accredited in 2014 and began processing DNA samples not only for the sheriff’s office but also the Rock Hill, Fort Mill and York police departments.

With the new lab, York County became one of only four local agencies in the state processing their own DNA evidence. Instead of sending evidence to the State Law Enforcement Division in Columbia, which could take months to process it and as long as a year to do the tests for a low-priority property crime, York County could do it all in-house.

The increased efficiency made possible by the new CODIS software could be particularly helpful in rape cases. While precise figures are unavailable, it is estimated that hundreds of rape kits remain untested in law enforcement agencies across the state.

There is no state law guiding law enforcement on the testing of sexual assault evidence, and local agencies’ policies are inconsistent. In many cases, it is up to individual investigators to submit a request to the appropriate crime lab.

With faster, more accurate DNA testing, agencies can submit more kits to see if suspects can be prosecuted or even when there is no identified suspect. In cases where no suspect is identified, the samples might contain a match to a DNA profile that already exists in the FBI’s national offender database.

York County now is among the leaders in the state in establishing its own DNA lab, and the addition of CODIS software is a big step forward. We hope it pays off in more successful prosecutions, especially in cases where justice already has been delayed too long.