North Carolina crime labs using DNA databases to bust open cold cases, sexual assaults

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – DNA technology and related services are key parts of criminal investigations. That includes an arrest made last week in a decades-old case in Cumberland County.

Scientists extract DNA at the North Carolina State Crime Lab in hopes of helping criminal investigations. The lab sees about 3,000 cases a year requesting DNA. About 30 to 40 percent of the cases are sexual assaults.

Since October 2018, there have been barcodes on the sexual assault kits so victims can track their kit as it moves through the system.

“You can track your package. You can track a pizza. You should be able to track your evidence and know,” said Vanesse Martinucci, the director of the North Carolina State Crime Lab. “It adds some accountability to the entire system and gives the victim a read into what is happening with the kit.”

Martinucci said the district attorney’s office will have access to a similar tracking system for sexual assault kits within a month.

Other pieces of evidence sent to the lab are from crimes like homicides and robberies.

Scientists will extract DNA from swabs or items, process it and add it to a database.

Some pieces of evidence can identify a suspect quickly. Others can sit in the database for decades without any leads.

“Now, through these public genetic genealogy databases, they are getting leads, so that’s very exciting,” said Martinucci.

The public databases let people submit their DNA test results from companies like Ancestry or 23 and Me. Experts use the DNA to map out family trees and see where a suspect fits.

The process has led to arrests in cases like the Ramsey Street Rapist in Fayetteville, “the Boy Under the Billboard” in Orange County, and, most recently, “Baby Michael” in Cumberland County.

“Our tactics have changed a little bit,” said Martinucci. “A lot of law enforcement agencies are submitting these profiles into these public genetic databases to try to solve cases that we haven’t been able to solve.”

The Rocky Mount Police Department said they’re now looking to use the genealogy technology for the cold case of Baby John Nash. The newborn was found dead in a dumpster with a Cheetos bucket in Rocky Mount 13 years ago.

The crime lab will follow up to get more information on a suspect if they’re found through a genetic database.

They’re separate entities using DNA to achieve the same goal of a safe community.

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