SAN ANTONIO – A supervisor at the Bexar County Criminal Investigations Laboratory says new machinery, in place since June 1, will allow his team to make quick headway on a backlog of sexual assault cases.
Garon Foster, the forensic scientist supervisor of the crime lab’s DNA section, estimates there are approximately 600 to 700 open sexual assault cases going back six to seven months. Although he says part of that has resulted from his team having to set up new machinery in their lab, Foster thinks those same machines will now help them cut into the backlog.
“I fully expect us to have or decrease this backlog in half and the turnaround time, I hope, in half within those four to six months,” Foster said.
Foster’s nine-person team handles cases from Bexar County’s Sheriff’s Office, San Antonio Police Department, and even many Laredo Police Department cases - and not just sexual assaults. The DNA section’s work includes “everything to do with forensic biology” for murders, kidnappings, burglaries, and other crimes.
Bexar County has spent $167,000 to improve the capacity and processing time of sexual assault kits, which includes new automated machinery that can simultaneously extract DNA from samples in multiple cases in a matter of hours.
Foster says the machinery helps his team on several fronts.
Where they previously had to first pore over each sample with a microscope looking for usable material- something that could take an entire day for one case - they can now skip straight to extracting any DNA from the samples.
Plus, the extraction process is automated, which frees them up to do other testing work.
They have also been able to institute a new process to screen the DNA samples early on for Y-chromosomes, which would indicate the presence of male genetic material.
The majority of the sex assault cases involve a male suspect and a female victim, this screening will allow the forensic scientists to focus just on the samples that could yield usable DNA of the perpetrator.
Although Foster estimates it will still take about two weeks to process each case, the new machines and Y-chromosome screening process will make it possible to work on more cases at one time.
That should cut into the case backlog and help things move along more quickly for investigators, victims, and even innocent suspects.
“Many a times we have four, five different defendants listed as a potential contributor, and it is extremely important for us to be able to tell the law enforcement agency that ‘person, number one, two, three, four are not the donor of the DNA, and maybe person number five is consistent with being the donor,’” Foster said.