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

PROVO – The image of a detective pulling a fingerprint off a desk or doorknob may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about collecting DNA evidence, but did you know that a fingerprint was on clothing can now help law enforcement agencies identify suspects?

That means victims of crimes like keys – which often leave little clues that lead to perpetrators – have a better chance of finding justice, according to a frontline nursing professor at Brigham Young University who is running the new investigative tool in Utah a standard practice across the country.

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

“With the advancement of DNA analysis methods, we no longer need as many cells to create or develop a DNA profile,” said Julie Valentine, BYU Nursing Professor and Certified Sexual Assault Investigator.

According to a study that Valentine and other researchers recently published in the Journal of Forensic Nursing, men between the ages of 18 and 45 are considered “high sheders” of DNA through touch. People with dry, sweaty, or unclean hands also lose more skin cells. Research shows that Touch DNA gives better results when collected from porous or rough surfaces like wood or fabric.

Prior to 2011, touch DNA was primarily an experimental tool used in laboratory settings – until one case in Utah.

One woman was groped and attacked “very violently” by someone who had assaulted several other women at the University of Utah that same day. Law enforcement agencies had to identify the perpetrator in order to stop the assaults – but there was a lack of obvious evidence, Valentine recalled.

“And the only thing that could be collected was where the women were touched, there were no body fluids,” she said.

Without knowing if anything would come of it, a medical examiner collected swabs of evidence from the places where the victim had been touched by the grabber, including on her clothing.

“It wasn’t standard practice at all, just, ‘That’s all we have, so can we develop any meaningful information?'” Valentine said.

When the evidence was sent to the state crime lab, the forensic nurse said to those in the lab, “You’ll think I’m crazy, but I am,” said Valentine.

It worked.

The victim was unable to identify her attacker on a photographic list of potential suspects found by police, but the crime lab developed a DNA profile that matched the woman’s skin cells that matched one of the suspects.

“And that was really why this case was prosecuted,” said Valentine. “We really thought, ‘Wow, this works with real cases, this works in real life. This is not a simulated situation.'”

The nursing professor has since worked with fellow forensic nurses and scientists to develop a touch DNA form for sexual assault cases. Utah is now the first and only state Valentine knows has touch DNA on its standard sexual assault exam form. She is also working with law enforcement officers, prosecutors and other stakeholders to raise awareness of the new investigative tool. Valentine even shared her work with an international audience.

With the advancement of DNA analysis methods, we no longer need as many cells to create or develop a DNA profile.

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

A number of buttons at BYU made headlines recently. For two days in March, at least five people said they had been groped by the same man. Jacob Scott Hansen, 26, faces two sexual harassment charges, a Class A offense, in connection with these cases. The police didn’t say how they identified Hansen. When asked if touch DNA has been used in recent cases at the university, Valentine said she was unable to comment on pending criminal cases.

While the method doesn’t always result in a suspect being found – it has been shown to result in a DNA profile in 6 out of 42 cases – Valentine calls it “a new tool in the toolbox” to aid survivors.

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

As with any form of evidence, the presence of a person’s DNA profile found through touch DNA does not always mean that they committed a crime or that there is enough evidence to pass a court. For example, if a man and woman are holding hands on a date, their DNA is likely to be found on their hand. But if a woman says she wasn’t consensually groped and DNA is found on her chest or genital area, it will likely be more telling than evidence, Valentine said.

Touch DNA can also help with violations of the protection order, as the presence of the perpetrator’s DNA on a victim’s body can prove that the order has been violated, the professor said.

“So every time 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 say whether it makes sense,” said Valentine.

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

“We want the general public to know that they can see, collect evidence, and receive resources if they are attacked or petted. We don’t need bodily fluids to collect evidence, so” now it’s really a general awareness campaign “said Valentine.

She hopes the tool could attract more survivors to seek help so they can begin a “healing path”. When victims and survivors hear, “I’m sorry this happened to you and we will work to gather evidence that could be helpful in your case,” it affirms and helps them feel like they have a voice to have Valentine said.

It is also important to try to identify Gropper, as then they can be given the help they need to prevent continued victimization and violence, the professor said.

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



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