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A 'Magic Box' To Analyze DNA: The Next Evolution In Crime Fighting?

A criminalist examines for DNA evidence at a lab in the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner, Friday, June 4, 2010, in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
A criminalist examines for DNA evidence at a lab in the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner, Friday, June 4, 2010, in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

With David Folkenflik

A new DNA machine could help solve crimes more quickly and more easily. It’s also a new frontier without much in the way of rules.


Fred Harran, police officer and director of public safety, Bensalem Township Police Department. ( @BensalemDirPS)

David Kaye, law professor at Penn State Law School, forensics expert. Author of “Double Helix and the Law of Evidence.” ( @PennStateLaw)

Lisa Holder, interim legal director for the Equal Justice Society in Oakland ( @equaljustice), which, along with other civil liberties groups, is suing the state of California over its practice of collecting and retaining DNA profiles of people arrested for alleged felonies but never convicted. Principal attorney at the law office of Lisa Holder in Los Angeles. UCLA law school lecturer on police accountability.

From The Reading List

Washington Post: “ FBI plans ‘Rapid DNA’ network for quick database checks on arrestees” — “Though DNA has revolutionized modern crime fighting, the clues it may hold are not revealed quickly. Samples of saliva, or skin, or semen are sent to a crime lab by car (or mail), and then chemists get to work. Detectives are accustomed to waiting days or weeks, or longer, for the results. Some labs are so backed up, they take only the most serious crimes. Some samples are never tested.

“But a portable machine about the size of a large desktop printer is changing that. A Rapid DNA’ machine can analyze the DNA in a swab and produce a profile of 20 specific loci on the DNA strand in less than two hours. Some local police departments and prosecutors have been using Rapid DNA machines for about five years to solve crimes.

“In Orange County, Calif., recently, police investigating a stabbing found a trail of blood they believed was left by the assailant. The Rapid DNA machine was able to produce a profile that matched someone already in the Orange County database but who was “not on the radar” of investigators, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Contini said. He was arrested. ‘The speed with which you can give law enforcement these clues is critical,’ Contini said. ‘When you are out on these suspects fast, they confess. We’ve had tremendous success.’ ”

New York Times: “ Coming Soon to a Police Station Near You: The DNA ‘Magic Box’” — “They call it the ‘magic box.’ Its trick is speedy, nearly automated processing of DNA.

“‘It’s groundbreaking to have it in the police department,’ said Detective Glenn Vandegrift of the Bensalem Police Department. ‘If we can do it, any department in the country can do it.’

“Bensalem, a suburb in Bucks County, near Philadelphia, is on the leading edge of a revolution in how crimes are solved. For years, when police wanted to learn whether a suspect’s DNA matched previously collected crime-scene DNA, they sent a sample to an outside lab, then waited a month or more for results.

“But in early 2017, the police booking station in Bensalem became the first in the country to install a Rapid DNA machine, which provides results in 90 minutes, and which police can operate themselves. Since then, a growing number of law enforcement agencies across the country — in Houston, Utah, Delaware — have begun operating similar machines and analyzing DNA on their own.”

Bucks County Courier Times: “ Bensalem police first local department in U.S. to use rapid DNA testing” — “A ‘magic box’ that the Bensalem police acquired recently will enable the department to solve some crimes within about 90 minutes, said Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub as he and Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran unveiled the new rapid-result DNA testing device Thursday.

“The department attempted a similar pilot project back in 2013, but never got it off the ground because of a $1 million cost to set up an on-site lab.

“This time, a lab isn’t needed, dropping the cost of the project to $150,000. The box, called IntegenX RapidHIT ID, allows police to rapidly analyze DNA collected from inside a potential suspect’s mouth to see if it matches DNA taken from crime scenes that Bensalem and 38 other police departments in the county are storing at the Bode Cellmark Forensics lab in Lorton, Virginia.”

Hilary McQuilkin and Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.

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