Rapid DNA now being used at Illinois State Police crime lab to reduce backlog

ABC7 I-Team Exclusive
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Rapid DNA technology is now being used to reduce the giant forensic backlog in Illinois State Police crime labs. It can't be used for everything, but Illinois State crime lab officials are hopeful that it will put a dent in their backlog.

ISP gave Investigative Reporter Jason Knowles and the I-Team an exclusive look at the new tool after their investigation exposed several hundred delayed murder cases in Chicago

"This is our new Ande instrument," said Debra Klebacha, a forensic scientist with the state police.

Ande, the brand name of ISP's rapid DNA technology, uses swabs to match DNA in about 90 minutes. It drastically cuts down wait times which could otherwise be weeks.

"We will take the swab from that person, get their profile off of this machine and compare it to any profiles we may have developed in the case using our traditional methods," said Klebacha.

Wearing gear to protect the lab from our DNA, Klebacha explained how it works.

"It could be a suspect. It could be a victim. As long as it is a known person involved in a case, we can use it for comparison," she said.

RELATED: Progress made reducing DNA case backlog, but room for improvement remains, director says

It's important to remember that rapid DNA can only be used to match DNA to a known suspect or victim; it can't be used to test random DNA.

"Rapid DNA technology can be used for standard samples. It's a 'known' sample recovered from someone you know, not a sample found at a crime scene," said Tracey Bogard, ISP's Section Chief of Biology DNA.

The DNA is put on swabs, which then go in tubes which are placed in five chambers in a large "chip" cartridge.

"Each chamber is separate so that it is a closed system and none of the samples will interact with each other," said Klebacha. "These are the collection swabs that are used. Each one has an RF ID tag on it. I'm going to scan it to the machine, and place it into the chip. The instrument will know which swab I placed there. We just slide it in. Push it to the back and close the door. Now, it is in final processing and momentarily the door is going to open and we can take the chip back out."

Green checkmarks mean a sample passed and if the sample fails, it will get a red X. Ande determines what passes and fails.

As of the end of January, the overall DNA Biology backlog was still 7,619 cases and state police are hoping the new technology will help.

"That is what we foresee; the use of the instrument is definitely processing these known standards more efficiently and faster, and then allowing the time for the analyst to spend on other casework type samples," explains Bogard.

In November of 2018, the I-Team uncovered more than 750 Chicago murder cases that were stalled at the lab, awaiting DNA analysis. We talked to family members who were waiting more than a year for results, as their loved ones' murderers walked the streets. DNA in both of the cases we exposed has since been processed, but did not result in arrests.

After the I-Team investigation, State Representative David McSweeney helped to pass a bill which required the ISP to develop a plan to bring new rapid DNA testing to the state crime lab.

RELATED: New bill could force Illinois State Police to perform rapid DNA testing to solve backlog

What took so long for Illinois to get rapid DNA?

"The rapid DNA is actually a fairly new technology in terms of forensics. So we are one of the few laboratories in this state, across the country that have this technology at this point in time," said Bogard.

ISP said it's also made progress by hiring more forensic scientists and restructuring its system. As of the end of January, ISP says there are now only are 7 CPD homicide assignments older than one year old. However, there are still 432 homicide assignments a year or less.

ISP just started using the rapid DNA technology February 24, so it's unclear as to how much it is helping yet.

"We try every single day to work on cases, to work down the backlog. We hope to provide our user agencies with answers as fast as we can," Bogard said, addressing families waiting on DNA analysis.

The contracted cost of the rapid DNA machine, Ande, is $230,000 which includes extra equipment needed and service for a year.

There are no plans yet to add more rapid machines, but it could happen in the future.
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