‘Touch DNA’ found on clothing helps police find gropers after groundbreaking Utah case

PROVO – Image of a detective pulling a fingerprint from a desk or a doorknob may be the first to think of DNA evidence collection, but did you know that a fingerprint left on clothes can now help law enforcement to identify suspects?

This means that victims of crimes such as trial and error – which often leave little clue leading to perpetrators – have a better chance of finding justice, according to a nursing professor at Brigham Young University at the forefront. to make the new survey tool standard practice in Utah and across the country.

It’s called tactile DNA, and it’s developed from skin cells. The DNA collection method carries the same level of scientific evidence as any other form of collection.

“With the advancement of DNA analysis methods, we don’t need so many cells to be able to create or develop a DNA profile,” said Julie Valentine, BYU professor of nursing and examiner. certified in sexual assault.

According to Valentine research published with other researchers recently in the Journal of Forensic Nursing, men between the ages of 18 and 45 are considered “heavy shedders” of DNA through touch. Those with dry, sweaty, or dirty hands also lose more skin cells. Tactile DNA works best when collected from porous or rough surfaces like wood or fabric, research shows.

Prior to 2011, tactile DNA was primarily an experimental tool used in the lab – until one case from Utah.

A woman was “very violently” groped and attacked by someone who had previously assaulted several other women at the University of Utah on the same day. Law enforcement needed to identify the perpetrator to end the assaults – but they lacked apparent evidence, Valentine recalled.

“And the only thing that could be collected was where the women had been hit, there was no bodily fluids,” she said.

Without knowing if anything would result, a forensic nurse collected evidence from places where the victim had been hit by the groper, including on his clothes.

“It wasn’t standard practice at all, it was just, ‘That’s all we have, so can we develop any kind of meaningful information? “” Said Valentine.

When the evidence was sent to the state crime lab, the forensic nurse told those in the lab, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but that’s what I had,” according to Valentine.

It worked.

The victim was unable to identify her attacker in a series of photos of potential suspects found by police, but the crime lab developed a DNA profile that matches one of the suspects using skin cells that had been collected from the woman.

“And that’s really the reason this case has been pursued,” Valentine said. “We really thought, ‘Wow, this works in real cases, it works in real life. This is not a simulated situation. “”

The nursing professor has since worked with other nurses and forensic scientists to develop a form of tactile DNA for use in sexual assault cases. Utah is now the first and only state Valentine is aware of that includes tactile DNA on her Standard Sexual Assault Examination Form. She is also working with law enforcement officials, prosecutors and other stakeholders to increase awareness of the new investigative tool. Valentine even shared her work with an international audience.

With the advancement of DNA analysis methods, we do not need so many cells to be able to create or develop a DNA profile.

–Julie Valentine, BYU Professor of Nursing and Certified Sexual Assault Examiner

A series of trial and error at BYU recently made headlines. For two days in March, at least five people said they were groped by the same man. Jacob Scott Hansen, 26, faces two charges of sexual violence, a Class A misdemeanor, in the cases. Police did not say how they identified Hansen. When asked if tactile DNA had been used in recent groping cases at college, Valentine said she couldn’t comment on pending criminal cases.

Although the method does not always lead to the discovery of a suspect – it has been shown to lead to a DNA profile for 6 out of 42 cases – Valentine calls it “a new tool in the toolbox” to help the survivors.

“Because the end goal is to reduce sexual violence in our state,” Valentine said.

As with any form of evidence, the presence of a DNA profile of a person found through tactile DNA does not always mean that they have committed a crime or that there will be enough evidence to stand up in court. For example, if a man and woman hold hands on a date, his DNA will likely be found on his hand. But if a woman says she was groped in a non-consensual manner and DNA is found on her breast or genital area, it will likely be more meaningful in evidence, Valentine said.

Tactile DNA can also be useful in violations of the protective order, as the presence of the perpetrator’s DNA on a victim’s body can prove that the order has been violated, according to the professor.

“So whenever we find DNA, we really have to look at the context and also the background information about what happened in this case to be able to tell if it’s significant,” said Valentine. .

Now she wants the public to know that tactile DNA is available to survivors.

“We want the general public to know that they can ask to be seen, to collect evidence, to receive resources if they are the victim of groping or petting. We don’t need bodily fluids. to collect evidence, so now it’s really a general public awareness campaign, ”said Valentine.

She hopes the tool could get more survivors to seek help, allowing them to begin a “healing journey”. When victims and survivors hear, “I’m sorry this has happened to you, and we will work to collect some evidence that might be useful in your case,” it validates them and helps them feel as if they have a problem. voice, Valentine mentioned.

It is also important to try to identify the gropers, as they can then receive the help they need to prevent continued victimization and violence, according to the professor.

“And so it really helps our society in general because we hope we can intercede early and help the perpetrators as well as the survivors,” she said.


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