Kentucky to use rapid DNA tests for sex assault cases

Kentucky is helping to pioneer new crime-fighting technology that allows rapid DNA testing to more quickly identify sexual assault offenders and clear those falsely accused, officials said Wednesday.

The equipment, known as the ANDE Rapid DNA system, can generate DNA identification from forensic samples in less than two hours, Kentucky law enforcement officials said. Kentucky is at the forefront nationally in embracing the technology, they said.

"If you are a sexual predator in ... Kentucky, we're going to come after you," Kentucky State Police Commissioner Richard Sanders said at a press conference. "And we now have new equipment to come after you quicker. We now have another way to identify who you are."

In recent months, state police forensic laboratories in Kentucky used the system on a pilot basis. The technique helped identify suspects within hours — dramatically shorter than traditional approaches, state law enforcement officials said.

A 2017 federal law authorized the FBI director to issue standards and procedures for rapid DNA analysis, described as a fully automated process, according to an FBI website.

The ANDE system received FBI approval last year for use in accredited laboratories, the company's website says. A cheek swab is inserted into an ANDE device roughly the size of an office photocopier and results appear within hours.

Officials used the company's rapid DNA equipment last year to try to identify victims of a wildfire that swept through Northern California.

The technology could help law enforcement apprehend sexual predators before they commit more crimes, Kentucky officials said. It also can prove the innocence of those falsely accused, they said.

Nearly 2,000 sexual assaults are reported every year in Kentucky, and it's estimated that nearly twice that number go unreported, Sanders said.

During the early phase, Kentucky had sufficient resources to process about 100 cases with the new system, said Laura Sudkamp, director of the Kentucky State Police Forensic Laboratory System. So far, the technology has been used in slightly more than half those cases, she said.

Fully implementing the system statewide and applying it to as many as 2,000 cases yearly would cost the state about $3 million, she said. Officials also are seeking grants.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who is seeking re-election this year, said he intends to include funding for the new crime-fighting technology in his state budget proposal next year. Bevin said the system's potential in helping law enforcement combat sexual crimes is "extraordinary."

Officials touted the system's ability to speed the processing of sexual assault kits. In recent years, Kentucky worked through a massive backlog of untested kits at police agencies statewide.

Democratic state Sen. Denise Harper Angel, who has championed the issue, said in a statement that use of the technology shows Kentucky's commitment to "provide swift justice" for victims of sexual assault.

Law enforcement officials said the technical steps and data interpretation in the new system are essentially identical to conventional approaches. The new system, however, processes samples and interprets the data automatically, producing faster results, they said.

The technology generates a "DNA ID," officials said. It does not reveal information about someone's appearance or medical or behavioral conditions — a level of privacy that removes bias and produces objective information to assist criminal investigations, they said.

"It gives us the most powerful witness of all: scientifically proven identity," said Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley.

The technology underwent a rigorous evaluation to guarantee it accurately identifies predators without infringing on privacy rights, officials said.

"In forensic science, we use our science to be objective, to find answers from the evidence," Sudkamp said. "But those results go to court and they could put someone to death, they could put someone in jail forever. This is their life. So we have to be extremely cautious with every step that we take."