Raleigh, N.C. — On the CBS crime drama "CSI," detectives with high-tech gadgets solve a case in one episode. NC Wanted visited the DNA lab at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation headquarters to find out how much is authentic and how much is Hollywood hype.
"I will give the ‘CSI’ show some credit in that they have done their research to see the type of technology that's out there,” said Amanda Thompson, a DNA analyst and special agent for the SBI.
Thompson said when it comes to actual results, the difference between fiction and reality is time.
“It takes us on average a couple weeks versus the 30 minutes depicted in the television show,” Thompson said.
Two weeks is long in TV time, but it is much faster than the 'old days' of DNA testing, which began in the mid-1980s. DNA results used to take several weeks, sometimes months to complete
Thompson attributed the faster process to improving technology.
“Going from needing a large amount of sample and a clean sample, we now can use a very minimal sample and a degraded sample. We target only one nanogram of DNA,” Thompson said.
One nanogram is one billionth of a gram. Thompson said using a sample that small is made possible by an improved process called “Touch DNA.”
“Our technology as sensitive as it is allows us to obtain a profile simply from the person having been the last individual to touch a surface,” said Thompson.
Thompson and other DNA analysts at the state lab can now process anything from counter top swabbings to pistol grips to potato chip bags.
The Touch DNA technique helped investigators to obtain a sample from the suspect in the 2002 murder of Stephanie Bennett in Raleigh.
In 2005, the suspect, Drew Planten, refused to provide a sample of his DNA and took extreme measures to avoid leaving his DNA on anything.
“If you were trying to prohibit someone from obtaining your DNA, he was a prime example of what you should do,” Thompson added.
Police eventually got a sample of Planten's DNA, then charged him with the murder. He killed himself in jail before trial.
Attorney general on a mission
Seeing breakthroughs at the SBI lab brings satisfaction to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
When Cooper took office in 2001, the SBI lab had five analysts on staff.
He remembered how angry he got when he was told about thousands of untested rape kits, in cases with no suspects, that were sitting on shelves throughout the state.
“I was just furious. I could not believe that the state had not invested enough money into DNA in order to test those no-suspect rape kits,” Cooper said.
Cooper spent years advocating for an expansion of the SBI lab facilities and staff.
He said the lab now employs over 40 DNA analysts, lab results are returned much faster, and the rape kit backlog is history.
“Today, all of those rape kits have been cleared from those local law enforcement shelves and we’ve been able to put many rapists and murderers behind bars, using DNA,” Cooper said.
Cooper said he is encouraged by the progress, but with a growing population and criminals adapting to technology, this is no time to stand pat.
“Forensic science and technology rank very high on our list of priorities. We have to keep improving our technology to stay a step ahead of the criminals,” Cooper said.