Crime scene DNA testing still a long way off
-deemed too costly and too technical By Kim Lucas and Johann Earle
Stabroek News
November 16, 2003

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Forensic testing of people's DNA would be useful in combating Guyana's escalating crime surge, but the likelihood of establishing the technology here still seems many years away.

DNA testing is useful in helping to solve crimes such as rape and murder, since every person's genetic make-up is unique and, according to Andrew Boyle, microbiologist and Director of Eureka Medical Laboratory in Georgetown, the technique is 99.9 per cent accurate. As such, experts stand a better chance of identifying perpetrators of any given crime from evidence left on the scene.

The idea of using the test locally was brought up 10 years ago after the high-profile murder of 19-year-old Monica Reece, who was dumped from a speeding vehicle on Main street, Georgetown. But of late, not much has been said about moving in the DNA direction. Investigators had reportedly retrieved sperm residue from Reece's corpse and had also checked the interior of several vehicles, but the murder remains unsolved, although hair samples were obtained from one of the vehicles.

Stabroek News understands that help was sought from forensic experts in Trinidad and Tobago. Sources in the Twin Island Republic told this newspaper recently that that country was now developing the facility for forensic investigations. Very soon that country's government was expected to make a pronouncement on that, the source said.

The idea of using DNA testing in major crimes also resurfaced with the upsurge in violent crime over the last 21 months, especially given the amount of blood left at crime scenes. The police, for example, could only have concluded on the basis of reports that last year's prison escapees and their cohorts had been hiding in a Prashad Nagar house in May. Although bloodied clothes were retrieved from the scene, officers were never able to state definitively whose blood was on the clothes.

Likewise, on October 28, 2002, after a bloody shootout in the city and on the lower East Coast Demerara, a blood trail through a section of the Sophia Squatting area suggested that someone had escaped who had been injured. Who that person was remains a mystery to this day.

According to one official, the technology for testing DNA, although it would greatly assist the resource-strapped police force, would be too costly, whether it was brought and set up here, or samples were sent abroad for testing.

"We have the basic knowledge of the benefits you can get from it [but] it is extremely expensive and prohibitive in terms of the police's budget," one source told Stabroek News.

He pointed out that should the Guyana Police Force use the services of a foreign forensic lab, there would be a heavy cost attached to sending someone to that country with the samples so as not to break the nexus. Additionally, if DNA evidence were to be used as part of a court proceeding, then it would be an added expense for the government to bring the expert to Guyana to testify, the source explained.

Conversely, it would cost several million dollars to set up the facilities here, train persons in forensic science and maintain such a lab. As such, it was suggested that private persons or hospitals would be the best bet in pushing Guyana closer to forensic investigation.

"The whole issue boils down to priority... do you put money into DNA testing instead of, for example, rice, which brings in foreign revenue for the country? You need financing and qualified people, but it [DNA testing facilities] would be useful if it comes here," said the analyst.

But one observer pointed out that local authorities first have to master simple testing, before they think about more complex matters. The police force often reports that ballistic tests on weapons used at the various crime scenes are being carried out, but to date, the public does not know what the results of those tests are, and whether they proved useful in solving anything. Only recently, a gun was found in a prisoner's cell at the Camp street jail, but the police later said, they could not lift fingerprints from the weapon to determine who had handled it, because the prints were "etched."

"They can't even get the fingerprints right, ballistics... Do the simple things right first, then go on to DNA," the observer commented.

Additionally, it has been observed that when bodies of murder victims are found, very often it is left to family members and acquaintances to determine the identity of the victim. One medical person said that in the absence of DNA, investigators should be able to rely on maggots and other organisms to determine, for example, the time of death.

Speaking with Stabroek News recently, Boyle said DNA testing was not done in Guyana period; however, through his lab, it could be "facilitated."

"We take the samples and send them to labs in the US. It takes about ten days for the samples to be tested and the results returned to Guyana. [But] it is a different story for crime solving. You need to have a sample of the suspect so that you can compare it with what is found at a crime scene. Several persons' DNA will have to be compared," Boyle explained.

Boyle says his lab is given discounts because Guyana is a poor country; nonetheless, a paternity test costs around US$350. It is that test that the lab currently advertises, and in that procedure, they test either the father and the child or the mother and the child, and then compare the DNA.

As yet, he told this newspaper, crime is not one of the areas of focus, since Eureka is a clinical and medical lab.

"If you are handling evidence from a crime, you have to guard against sample- switching, theft and other forms of sabotage. We would need to have security systems to prevent access to persons and we are not ready for that as yet... If the police has an interest in using DNA testing to fight crime, then there must be discussions with interested parties to examine the feasibility. We have to look at the available resources and we would need to make arrangements with labs overseas and discuss the best prices. The ideal situation is that the government facilitates the process. They should set up a forensic lab and there will have to be trained people of integrity," Boyle said.

He argued that certification by the Guyana National Bureau of Standards would ensure that samples were properly labelled and documented, but this would not constitute protection against acts of pilferage.

Although the possibility exists for DNA testing to be done here some time in the future, Boyle said the cost would be cheaper, but still frightening. He said the equipment that identifies the DNA strands and makes the comparisons costs US$250,000, which he does not consider a viable investment at this time for Eureka lab. "DNA testing is something that needs to be encouraged and although it is expensive, it is 99.9% accurate... We have qualified people, but they are more medically oriented."