A federal grant to process DNA will enable investigators to take a fresh look at nearly 6,000 unsolved homicide and sexual assault cases in Arizona that date back decades.
The state Department of Public Safety is getting a $3.2 million grant for DNA processing of "cold cases," and another grant of about $1.2 million to build a lab that will perform specialized DNA work with the FBI, officials said Tuesday.
The grant for cold cases will help police across the state clear hundreds or perhaps thousands of crimes, said Todd Griffith, the crime lab’s superintendent.
The other grant will help the FBI expand work on mitochondrial DNA, which is used in missing person cases when only bones or teeth are found.
DPS will get $500,000 to set up the mitochondrial DNA lab and $753,000 over five years to run it with the FBI. The lab is one of four the FBI has authorized in the nation — and the only one in the Western United States. The FBI will rely on the lab and its Arizona staff to solve crimes from many other states.
"We feel very good about it," Griffith said. "We’ve worked hard over the years to stay in the forefront of this area."
The $3.2 million grant for cold cases will pay for equipment, supplies and overtime that should clear a backlog of about 5,800 cases within a year, Griffith said.
Valley police departments said the grant will help an untold number of Arizonans learn who took the life of a relative or friend.
"That is a question that never goes away with the victim’s family," said Tempe homicide detective Tom Magazzeni. "They want to know what happened to their loved one. They want to know who is responsible."
Magazzeni said the DPS lab’s DNA work recently helped Tempe police get an indictment in the 1978 slaying of college student Deana Bowdoin.
Police said they probably could not have made an arrest without DNA because suspect Clarence Wayne Dixon was a stranger whose name had not come up in the quartercentury they worked the case. Police identified him by checking unidentified DNA at the murder scene against a statewide database of convicted criminals.
Magazzeni expects the same approach will help him close more of Tempe’s roughly 20 cold cases dating back to 1972.
"I intend to submit a whole bunch more," Magazzeni said.
Other police agencies across the state plan to submit evidence to the DPS lab, but detectives caution the work won’t help some cases. In Scottsdale, officer and former homicide investigator Sam Bailey said some of that department’s roughly 20 cold cases don’t include the DNA of suspects.
"The bad guys don’t always bleed," Bailey said.
The cold case work promises to advance thousands of cases, Griffiths said. He expects that out of the 6,000 cases, there will be enough information to get 2,800 DNA profiles. The lab will search state and national databases of convicted criminals for a match and will probably make hundreds or thousands of matches, he said.
DPS and other agencies will look into crimes that occurred before DNA testing began in the 1980s. And they will look into cases since then, because technology has made it possible to extract increasingly smaller amounts of DNA that previously was undetectable.
Older technology required a dime-size spot of blood or bodily fluid to extract DNA. Now, a spot that’s as big as a dot from a pen is enough. Even unseen evidence is useful today. If police have a suspect’s shirt in an evidence locker, they can find enough skin cells rubbed off by the label to know who wore the garment.
"You can go back to evidence and do a lot of things that couldn’t be done before," Griffith said.