March 6, 2021

Cayman Islands DNA Unit celebrates 10th year anniversary

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Photo 3The DNA Unit of the Cayman Islands Forensic Science Laboratory, a not-for-profit, multifunctional, state of the art laboratory operated by the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority (HSA) in Grand Cayman, celebrates its 10th year anniversary.

Established in 2006 and internationally accredited since 2009, the DNA Unit conducts human identity testing for criminal, legal and private purposes. For law enforcement, the DNA Unit examines evidence collected from scenes of crime for potential biological material, such as blood or other body fluids or skin cells, and then conducts DNA analysis to identify the possible donors by comparison to suspects, victims, or elimination samples.

In celebration of its 10th year anniversary the unit seeks to highlight the importance of DNA services in the Cayman Islands. DNA is a powerful tool for law enforcement. Its ability to discriminate between individuals with a high degree scientific certainty has made it invaluable in criminal investigations.

Additionally, the laboratory’s scientists have extensive training and experience of searching for and recovering potential DNA sources both at scenes of crime and on physical evidence obtained from scenes of crimes.

“Prior to the establishment of the DNA Unit, DNA samples were sent overseas and incurred a higher cost,” Forensic DNA Specialist Angela Tanzillo-Swarts explained.

“With the introduction of Cayman’s very own DNA Unit, we are able to perform the same high quality testing for approximately one-third of what it used to cost to send samples overseas. Samples can be processed quickly and the results sent to the police within three to six weeks on average and in as little as 24 hours for ‘rush cases,” she added.

In addition to conducting forensic casework in criminal investigations, the DNA Unit also maintains a Criminal Justice database comprised of DNA profiles from scenes of crime, suspects, and arrestees. Through an agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to utilise the FBI’s Combined DNA Index Software (CODIS), the laboratory established and maintains the National DNA Database of the Cayman Islands (NDDCI) in 2006 and has been assisting law enforcement to link unsolved crimes to known offenders ever since.

The information the scientists obtain from biological material can be searched against each other to find potential matches between unsolved crimes and known offenders. This process generates investigative leads in matters where the police did not previously have any known suspects. “On average, the National DNA Database of the Cayman Islands obtains investigative leads in 40%-50% of ‘no suspect’ cases,” said Ms Tanzillo-Swarts.

Furthermore, with recidivism rates estimated as high as 70 per cent, the investigative assistance gained by a functional DNA database is an invaluable tool. Numerous case studies have shown that obtaining DNA samples upon arrest can prevent more crimes. For example, in Chicago, USA, a study proved that 60 violent crimes, including 53 murders and rapes, could have been prevented if DNA had been taken upon arrest and matched to unsolved crimes. Not only can it be used to help prevent more violent crimes from occurring, a DNA database may also solve decades old cases. Reanalysis of cold cases using DNA technology in conjunction with a database of known offenders can identify previously unknown persons of interest.

Also, with the latest version of the FBI’s CODIS software, which has the potential for expansion, the laboratory may now assist victim identification in mass casualty events.

Adding to its forensics casework and DNA database capabilities, the laboratory began relationship testing in 2013. Using the same technology as forensic DNA analysis, it may answer questions of relationship and can determine the likelihood of paternity with 99.9 per cent or greater probability. The laboratory has assisted hundreds of local families to comply with Cayman Islands immigration requirements and matters of child custody/support, or simply offered them peace of mind. The laboratory has also used this application to assist in the identification of human remains found in Cayman waters.

The Cayman Islands Forensic Science Laboratory not only seeks to bring awareness to the importance of these services locally, but regionally as well. Ms Tanzillo-Swarts promoted the country’s DNA services by participating at the Inaugural Conference Caribbean Association of Forensic Sciences in Jamaica on 20-22 July 2016 where she presented on four topics. The topics included: Probabilistic Genotyping, New Frontiers n DNA Profiling, DNA Databanking in the Cayman Islands, and Blood in Paradise: A Field Study on the Effects of the Caribbean Environment on Forensic DNA Typing of Bloodstains. Her involvement in the conference raised awareness of the DNA services offered in the Cayman Islands among people across the region. This is a vital step towards the laboratory’s vision for the Caribbean region, which includes a multinational DNA database cooperative that could link known offenders to crimes committed in the region.

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