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Ask Matt ... about local cold cases

Q. We have heard a lot about solving cold cases with DNA evidence. Is new technology being used by our local law enforcement and is it solving old cases?


Yes and maybe. Henderson County operates a small but functional forensics lab on the top floor of the Sheriff’s Office building. The lab is supervised by Jim McClelland, a retired SBI officer with an extensive background in forensics. His lab can examine latent crime scene evidence such as fingerprints but is also capable of analyzing bullet fragments and shell casings. The forensics lab is the home of the county’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), which was developed by the FBI. This is where fingerprints meet digital imaging technology.
The AFIS takes a digital image of, say, one fingerprint and compares it to millions of fingerprints in its digital database. Once the fingerprint is scanned and entered, in a matter of seconds the computer will spit out 10 of the best matches. Detectives can use those names to aid in their investigation. If you have been arrested before anywhere in the USA, your prints should be in the system. The lab’s AFIS averages about one or two “hits” each week. McClelland said the AFIS is available to all law enforcement agencies in Henderson County and Polk County without charge.
But the county’s forensics lab has limited capability. Items that cannot be properly examined such as molecular genetic evidence (DNA) are shipped to the Western Regional Crime Lab, which serves the western third of the state. The western lab opened two years ago in Edneyville largely due to the efforts of former state Sen. Tom Apodaca.
Today our state is facing a critical challenge – the backlog of DNA evidence testing. There are more than 100 untested sexual assault examination kits in our county alone and thousands more across the state. “These are not cold cases,” said McClelland. “Nothing can be worked until the evidence can be tested. There is a logjam across the state.”
Because DNA testing is both slow and expensive, priorities must be established to see which rape kits go to the front of the line. McClelland explained that not every rape victim wants to go to trial plus district attorneys are often reluctant to prosecute “date rape” cases. The State has asked that review committees look at each case before the DNA is sent to be tested. Committees can include the D.A., law officers, social services, health care professionals and victims’ rights advocates.
A bill now in the General Assembly called Standing Up for Rape Violence Act of 2019 is intended to expedite the testing process. The bill, which has bipartisan support, will establish protocols for evidence handling and testing and provide needed testing funds. “If the bill passes in Raleigh, come January, we all may be very busy,” said McClelland, meaning the log jam may be freed. Most of the DNA testing will go to private labs. (The measure is currently one of the bills stuck in the standoff between Gov. Roy Cooper and the Legislature over the 2020 budget.)
Cold Cases are routinely reviewed in the Sheriff’s Office but there is only one unsolved homicide in recent history – the murder of 28-year-old Charity Worley at her home in 2008. There are some “persons of interest” but no hard evidence and nothing recovered at the crime scene on West Gilbert Street that could be tested for DNA. The case is cold, yes, but not forgotten.

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