Fast DNA testing is about to help the Houston Police in growing homicide investigations

What a difference a day makes – especially when it comes to criminal cases that depend on a timely DNA test result.

The Houston Forensic Science Center currently analyzes criminal evidence for DNA in a minimum of 24 hours. New equipment – approved Tuesday – could shorten that turnaround to about five hours by next summer, officials said. The accelerated clarity could improve clearance rates for the Houston Police Department, for example, by quickly determining whose blood belongs to whom at a crime scene, or by helping investigators determine whether the person who is interested is the suspect.

And if investigators fear their possible culprit – whose charges depend on a DNA match – pose a flight risk, this could help, said Dr. Peter Stout, President of the Center.

“Those first 24 hours can decide whether something can be resolved or whether it will languish,” said Stout.

The new equipment – ThermoFisher’s RapidHIT ID System – comes with a price of $ 246,380 and 100 tests per year for high priority cases like murders or sexual assault, records show. An ideal sample would come from a single source, e.g. B. from a pool of blood or a cheek swab.

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The test also requires fewer staff, Stout said, many of whom have already timed out as violent crime increased during the pandemic.

“It’s been a tough year,” he said. “The violent crime pattern started before COVID – COVID made it worse.”

A recent internal audit of HPD’s Homicide Division identified falling eviction rates and detectives’ concerns about test delays at the science center. That year, forensic staff tested more than 1,400 reference samples – one of the few pieces of evidence a rapid test can analyze – for murder investigations and other crimes.

Science center spokeswoman Rami Plushnick-Masti said HPD requested the equipment in response to the rising number of murders in Houston during the pandemic.

Police officers did not respond to requests for comments on the new equipment.

As of Wednesday, Houston law enforcement had recorded 401 murders with a 52 percent clarification rate, according to a police spokesman. The surge in homicides in an already turbulent 2020 has cemented the past 12 months as some of the deadliest in three decades.

Stout highlighted the Maleah Davis investigation as a case that could have benefited from a rapid test.

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The search for the missing 4-year-old girl in 2019 led to a harrowing death investigation. Police found her body along an Arkansas freeway, and her mother’s friend, Derion Vence, was accused of manipulating evidence of a human corpse and injury to a child.

A small blood sample was found in her apartment in Alief, but investigators could not quickly confirm that it belonged to the missing child.

“Time was of the essence,” said Stout.

Rapid tests have the limitation that they consume the sample used. In Maleah’s case, the blood sample was so small that a rapid test would have removed the evidence for future tests, such as appeals. Investigators wouldn’t risk a quick test for an invaluable sample.

The FBI has also banned the inclusion of genetic profiles derived from rapid tests in their combined DNA indexing system, which is used to link known criminals to violent crime until further testing is done. In the meantime, the sample can be added to local databases.

Stout added that the rapid test machine is subscription based, so there is the cost of a three year contract and the equipment can be upgraded if needed in 2022 or later.

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