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How researchers in Utah are leading the way in collecting DNA samples to solve sexual assault cases

touch dna
Posted at 11:52 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 14:52:18-04

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Researchers in Utah are leading the way when it comes to collecting DNA in sexual assault cases. At this moment, Utah is the only state using touch DNA to find answers, and the forensic nurse at the forefront is trying to change that.

Dr. Julie Valentine, a forensic nurse and nursing professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, explains the groundbreaking case that changed the way some DNA evidence is collected.

“In 2011, there was a case on a campus where a young woman was violently assaulted and groped," Valentine said “When the nurse walked into the room to greet the patient, she was finishing a sandwich and a soda, and anytime you activate the salivary enzymes you destroy the DNA. So, the nurse thought, 'Well, I know that our crime lab has these improved DNA analysis methods."

Valentine is referring to touch DNA, which is DNA from skin cells. Traditionally, it hasn’t been used in sexual assault and groping cases.

“Well, it turned out we got a full STR DNA profile of the suspect," Valentine said.

That means they were able to identify the assailant. Dr. Valentine says this was a turning point.

"If you are a victim of a groping or a sexual assault and you’re thinking oh the person didn’t ejaculate or there was no bodily fluid, that does not mean we can’t collect evidence," Valentine said.

Monica Garder is a survivor of sexual assault, abuse, and adulthood rape. While she knows who her assailants are, they were never prosecuted for their actions.

"It’s dulled me down from the bright light that I used to be to someone that’s just barely surviving," Gardner said. “And I’ve had months and months of being suicidal every day. I’ve had times where even in my room with the door locked, I’m pacing my room because I feel unsafe.”

Gardner knows the pain of sexual assault too well, but technology developed in Utah is giving her hope. She is putting her bravery on display in an effort to help other survivors.

“I think there is something that is validating in that to say here is another step, another piece that says I’m telling the truth," Gardner said.

Every perpetrator in a sexual assault case leaves behind answers; answers researchers in Utah are helping to find.

“I had a case where a victim had been taken by two men and one man held her down on her upper body while she was raped by the other man," Valentine said.

She says both men were identified using Touch DNA.

Dr. Valentine is now working with the National Institute for Justice to create best practice guidelines for touch DNA in sexual assault and groping cases. Throughout the last four years, she has created a series of webinars and presentations to teach professionals in other states and countries about how they too can use touch DNA in these cases.

“When DNA tests first came out, you needed about a quarter size of bodily fluid," Valentine said. “But that’s just not the case; the science has advanced.”

They also developed a touch DNA form to help nurse examiners collect evidence, and it’s the first of its kind. So far, the researchers have found a match in about 21% of cases that utilized Touch DNA.

"It really is this new tool in the toolbox for investigations, but we also have to be cautious and always look at everything in context and look at this as a piece of the investigation and the prosecution," Valentine said.

Unfortunately, touch DNA is only part of the puzzle. Another piece is testing a significantly higher number of rape kits and understanding their scientific value.

The NIJ explains that untested rape kits are a national problem. There is no national system for collecting rape kit data, making it nearly impossible to know how bad the problem really is. There are numerous states where limited reform has been enacted, but there is still much more to do.

That’s why Valentine and the rest of her team are continuing to work behind the scenes to change the future for survivors like Garder. This technology was not around to help in Garder's case, but she's hopeful it will help others get justice.

"This is going to empower the survivor to say, 'No, I can prove you were there. I can prove you touched my body because there is DNA evidence,'" Gardner said.