Fighting crime in a secret laboratory

Jerusalem Post reporter gets first look into police DNA database.

crime 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski and AP [file])
crime 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski and AP [file])
Hidden in the windowless basement of the National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, just steps away from the dining hall and six floors below the offices of the chief of police, is one of the best-hidden - and most successful - tools in the Israel Police's arsenal. Behind code-locked doors, a group of scientists in uniform under the command of Dep.-Cmdr. Ashira Zamir are responsible for the thousands of DNA samples in the police's national database. Although only in operation since February of this year, DNA matches uncovered by Zamir's team have solved 129 cases in the past 10 months. "I didn't even begin to dream of a number like 130," said Zamir, a police officer and biochemist who built Israel's first forensic DNA database from the ground up. "I thought that if, in the first year, we could find 20-30 'discoveries,' it would surpass my expectations." The laboratory was born following almost five years of legislative negotiations and fine-tuning to work out the balance between what police describe as an invaluable investigative tool on the one hand, and suspects' right to privacy on the other hand. In the end, it was decided that police would be permitted to take DNA samples from suspects questioned under warning, from defendants already in the trial stage and from felons already convicted of crimes. The laboratory stores DNA samples for periods of at least seven years - even if the sample was taken from a suspect later proven innocent - and samples taken from convicted criminals may be held for up to 20 years following their deaths. Since the law permitting DNA sampling of suspects went into effect, Zamir and her five-person team have received and filed approximately 14,000 samples - almost 150 percent of the number she expected to acquire during her first year of operation. The samples are taken by kits simple enough for police officers in the field to utilize, and are distributed to all of the stations nationwide. They contain a cheek-swab kit that resembles a Q-tip, enabling officers to swipe a suspect's inner cheek and then wipe the contents on a reactive card. Zamir's lab - and the database she built - works in concert with the Biological Forensics Lab run by Dep.-Cmdr. Ron Gafni, which gathers DNA evidence from crime scenes. Often, the anonymous DNA gathered from a crime scene can be matched to one of the samples in Zamir's database, each of which is linked to a bar code that can be scanned to find the suspect's personal data. In that way, Zamir's nascent database has led to the cracking of cases dating back to the beginning of the decade, connecting names to samples of DNA gathered from burglaries, assaults and rapes. "Using this DNA evidence saves a lot of effort on the part of investigators. With a push of a button, I can prove that a suspect was at the scene of a crime," Zamir explained. She emphasized, however, that in many cases, DNA analysis is directed at cases involving violence, when it can be just as effective a tool in property damage cases. Zamir cited the case of one suspect who left DNA evidence at the scene of a break-in to deputy police chief Cmdr. Shahar Ayalon's vehicle. Upon comparing the DNA from the Biological Forensics Lab to the nascent police database, Zamir's team discovered that the suspect's DNA had already been registered in the database for a prior offense. In doing so, they closed a sensitive auto break-in case that would have otherwise demanded weeks of intensive intelligence-gathering and investigation by local cops. Currently, says Zamir, the database's success has led to a backlog, with her small staff and cramped quarters unable to absorb the 300 DNA samples they are given to analyze and file every day. Zamir emphasizes that they take care to keep the samples anonymous. Beyond maintaining a strict identity-by-barcode-only policy, Zamir's team samples parts of the DNA known as "junk DNA," the purpose of which is unknown and thus cannot be used to identify the sample's owner by his or her physical characteristics - such as appearance, racial background or even genetic diseases. If scientists do manage to untangle one of the DNA "regions" used by the analysts and discover its purpose in the human genome, adds Zamir, the analysts will switch to a different point of comparison in the interests of preserving suspects' anonymity. Each region is located on a different chromosome, and the chance that two people would have the same 10-point match is estimated around one in hundreds of billions - not bad odds for a conviction, says Zamir, considering that the entire population of the Earth is still less than 10 billion. The possibilities of using DNA to crack tough cases are virtually endless, Zamir says, especially when combined with the work of veteran forensics investigators, who know where to look to find microscopic samples. Similarly, DNA, which is located in the nucleus of the cell, is slow to deteriorate, so microscopic samples can still be taken decades after a crime is committed. In recent weeks, Zamir's lab received a major leg up from two FBI agents who spent three days in Jerusalem, visiting the city's holy sites and installing a second DNA database program that will set Israel up for better cooperation with other countries in sharing technology. CODIS, the FBI-developed DNA database program, is currently distributed in 28 countries - and according to Zamir, Israel was jumped ahead in line as soon as police received a legal go-ahead to integrate it. The integration of CODIS, which is still under way, is perhaps the final major achievement of 2007 for Zamir and her team, who never dreamed 12 months ago that the basement database would meet with so much success in such a short time. "Its like a dream," says Zamir, who has a total of 27 years of experience in forensics. "Even after I leave, they'll still say - Ashira did this."