DNA increasingly sought in property crimes

Two weeks before Christmas, a pair of serial burglars kicked open the door of a north Baton Rouge home and fled with two televisions and a small arsenal of firearms.

Searching for DNA evidence among other clues, police swabbed several household items that appeared out of place, including a steak knife that had been used to pry open the doors of a gun cabinet.

Within weeks, the State Police Crime Lab had matched one of the swabs to the genetic profile of Anthony M. Jackson, a local man authorities said burglarized at least 10 homes before he was arrested. At a separate December break-in, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies found DNA left by Jackson’s alleged accomplice, Silas Riley, on an air-conditioning unit that had been pushed into a home.

“It’s becoming so much more common to test for DNA” in property crimes, said Walker Police Capt. John Sharp, whose colleagues recently collected biological evidence while investigating a church burglary. “Anytime there may be DNA present, we’ll swab for it.”

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, has been widely used for years to crack violent crimes such as murder and rape, allowing investigators to identify suspects by their unique genetic coding. But as the technology becomes more affordable and advanced, area law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to DNA to solve even run-of-the-mill crimes like car break-ins.

“Every day, it becomes more useful to us in many more types of investigations,” said Lt. Don Kelly, a Baton Rouge police spokesman.

The number of property crime cases submitted to the State Police Crime Lab for DNA testing has jumped from 138 five years ago to 1,415 in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Forensic requests for homicides and sex crimes also increased during that time period, but at a far lesser rate, according to State Police figures.

Demand has increased so exponentially that the lab has begun limiting larger agencies like the Baton Rouge Police Department and New Orleans Police Department to 10 property crime case submissions per month, said Joanie Brocato, the lab’s DNA manager.

“We had to do that,” she said, adding the lab had been taking on even more cases before imposing the limit.

Brocato attributed the surge in property crime cases to a greatly reduced backlog as well as improvements in the detection of “touch DNA,” which often involves just a few skin cells left on an item.

Violent crime cases still take priority at the lab over nonviolent offenses.

“You’re seeing this huge amount of property crime cases because (the authorities) know you can get valuable information from evidence left behind at these scenes,” said Angela Butler, laboratory manager at the Serological Research Institute in Richmond, Calif. “Years ago, CSIs and law enforcement staff weren’t trained in collecting this type of evidence, and it never occurred to them to try to swab certain items at a crime scene. Now they’re just collecting all kinds of stuff.”

In West Feliciana Parish, authorities recently found DNA evidence on a discarded Sprite can at a hunting camp where a four-wheeler had been taken. In another burglary, a deputy found a pair of gloves that yielded another DNA match, sheriff’s officials said.

Prosecutors in Baton Rouge filed burglary charges in May against a man accused of breaking into the Pelican Pawn and stealing more than two dozen firearms and jewelry. The suspect, Curtis Lee Roddy, was identified through DNA testing after he left two spots of blood and a glove at the crime scene, according to court records.

“It’s just such a great analytical tool that we have at our disposal,” said Kevin Ardoin, director of the Acadiana Crime Lab, which serves eight parishes. “You can get overrun because it’s so easy to do. It’s just a simple swab.”

Casey Rayborn Hicks, an East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said deputies attempt to collect DNA and fingerprints at the scene of every property crime.

“While property crimes are down from years ago,” she said, “we are processing DNA much more frequently now.”

A study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that property crimes in which DNA evidence is processed had “more than twice as many suspects identified, twice as many suspects arrested and more than twice as many cases accepted for prosecution compared with traditional investigation.” The project also concluded that DNA was at least five times as likely to identify a suspect compared to fingerprints.

Criminal suspects booked with a felony and some misdemeanors in Louisiana are required to submit DNA samples, which are entered into a database shared by law enforcement agencies. Victims are often asked to provide a DNA reference sample, but Brocato said those samples are not entered into the database.

State Police said its collection of DNA profiles, shared nationally through the FBI’s database, has grown from about 150,000 five years ago to 500,000 today. Those databases will only continue to grow after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last month that narrowly upheld a Maryland law allowing DNA to be taken from suspects arrested for serious crimes.

Given the limitations of the State Police Crime Lab, agencies have made an effort to submit evidence for forensic testing that is most likely to yield results.

“A break-in of a vending machine might be a bad example,” said Chief Deputy Tony Bacala of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office. “With a machine that’s open to public touch, a DNA match probably doesn’t mean much. If someone cuts his hand reaching into it, that’s a different story.”

Blood samples are far more likely to produce a usable DNA profile than are skin cells found on items at a crime scene.

The New Orleans Police Department submitted blood evidence to the State Police Crime Lab for 121 unsolved burglaries last year and has gotten 85 DNA matches so far.

Of those “hits,” 40 cases were cleared by arrest or warrant while 45 remain under investigation, Deputy Chief Kirk Bouyelas said.

The success of “Project Bloodwork” has gone a long way in convincing New Orleans police officers of the value of DNA testing and led to “tremendous buy-in,” he said.

“Our officers now, instead of not even considering DNA, are looking at it as their first option when they go out on these cases,” Bouyelas said. “It’s not just the murders and the shootings and the serious crimes, it’s even on the property crimes.

“They have found with these suspects that they’re not just burglars, that they’re committing other crimes as well,” he added.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said forensic evidence has become essential for all types of cases.

In the era of “CSI” and other forensic television programs, he said, “juries always expect DNA, so whether you have it or don’t have it, you always have to let them know you tried and let them know what the chances are of recovery.”

Moore cautioned that law enforcement should not become over reliant on DNA or lulled into laziness. Several officials said they still encourage crime scene investigators to look for more traditional clues like fingerprints, a far cheaper means of identification.

“It still requires regular, traditional law enforcement work,” Moore said. “DNA is powerful, but it’s limited.”