Thursday, July 20, 2006

DNA on soiled panties and condoms

In the news these past days were the items related to the alleged rape case that involved Filipino complainant-victim “Nicole” and the four accused US Marines. Forensic analyst Dr. Francisco Supe Jr. of the PNP Crime Laboratory told the court that DNA was indeed present in the two pieces of evidence that he had examined.

The panty yielded male and female DNA samples, with the female DNA sample matching Nicole’s. Strangely, the condom did not yield a male DNA profile. The male DNA found on the panty has yet to be matched with those of the accused, particularly DNA from Lance Corporal Daniel Smith who had used it in what the defense called “consensual sex.”

In this case, a lot will depend on the material evidence. I hope this will yield lessons on how evidence should be preserved and handled with utmost care by the victims and investigators. The accused and their conspirators have all the reasons to cover their tracks.

Well, in their hurry to get back to their ship the accused in this rape case weren’t able to get rid of the condom and Nicole’s panty as well.

Still, there might have been some mishandling of the vital pieces of evidence when these were turned over and this might have allowed environmental factors to damage other vital traces.

A “rape kit” would have come in handy for Nicole and the persons trying to help her immediately after the traumatic incident.

If you’re a fan of the blockbuster TV show ``CSI’’ (crime scene investigation) you know that the phrase ``shred of evidence’’ could mean a whole cache, thanks to modern science and technology. But David Caruso and his team can’t do much with their high tech lab machines and reagents if they have no crime scene samples to work on.

A rape kit could deliver those shreds of evidence, microscopic they may be. The kit could give an idea of the crime scene and the profiles of the guilty. A rape kit is light, handy, cheap and easy to use. It’s all in one big envelope.

Rape kits should be available to as many individuals and agencies in the helping profession as possible. Rape kits could spell the difference between justice and no justice and could lead to the speedy crime resolution for the victims, the guilty and the innocent as well.

The DNA Analysis Laboratory of Natural Sciences Institute of the University of the Philippines is working to make these kits available. Multi-awarded molecular microbiologist Dr. Ma. Corazon A. De Ungria and her UP team had worked on the project ``Incorporating DNA Evidence in the Resolution of Sexual Assault Cases in the Philippines’’ and won a funding grant for this two years ago.

UP’s DNA lab can now implement what it had proposed: validate a prototype investigation kit, establish an integrated system for rape investigations and storage of evidence, and train the lawyers/judiciary on the proper interpretation of forensic DNA evidence in the courtroom.

Yes, science moves faster than jurisprudence and there’s a lot that judges and criminal lawyers could learn from the nerdy lab techies.

With the advent of forensic DNA technology as a powerful investigative tool in the prompt resolution of criminal cases, there is a need to develop an efficient and secure system for the collection, analysis and storage of biological evidence. Rape kits form part of this technology.

A rape kit consists of several collection tubes with caps in different colors, cotton swabs for collecting samples from different parts of the victim’s body (vagina, external genitalia, anus, mouth and throat), small envelopes for the collection tubes, instructions on how to gather samples, preserve, pack, seal, preserve (at what temperature, etc.) and transport.

Also included are a sexual assault case history sheet to be filled up and signed by the interviewer and medical examiner, and a check list of the samples collected to be signed by the health practitioner who collected the samples. Pieces of clothing (like underwear) that might contain samples should be included too.

If you don’t have a rape kit, clip this column and note the items that you must have and make one.

The ``chain of custody’’ is very important. The samples collected should land in the right hands and agencies. UP’s DNA lab has a working partnership with the Child Protection Unit of the UP-Philippine General Hospital which assists women and children victims of sexual abuse. The UP-PGH-CPU and selected CPU units have been testing the prototype kits.

Samples should be gathered immediately and preferably before the victim washes her or his genital or anal area so that the semen of the rapist/s could be collected.

Some of the institutions in the country with DNA testing labs are the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine National Police, St. Luke’s Medical Center, and UP.
UP-NSRI does forensic research and accepts civil, criminal and disaster cases as part of its extension work. It personnel readily testify in court.

The American Academy of Forensic Science defines forensic science as ``the application of scientific principles and technological practices to the purposes of justice in the study and resolution of criminal cases and regulatory issues.’’

A person’s DNA profile serves as a DNA print that may be used to identify a person and trace his or her activities. New technologies are capable of analyzing even minute amounts of crime scene evidence, hence the immense impact of DNA technology in forensic investigations.