It was a routine case, but an important first for north metro crime fighters.
On Sept. 16, forensic scientists at the crime lab in Andover ran their first DNA test for a criminal investigation: They examined a knife retrieved in an assault case.
The Tri County Regional Forensic Crime Laboratory added DNA testing to its array of services this fall. The lab, established in 2008, already tests evidence for latent fingerprints and drug chemistry.
The crime lab — a joint venture of Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties — becomes the third agency in the state to test DNA in criminal investigations, according to its director. The other two are the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department (Page AA4).
Until now, law enforcement in the three counties relied on the BCA for DNA testing. Last year, the three counties sent 750 samples to the agency for DNA testing. In all, the BCA handled 4,976 DNA cases from across the state in 2012, with an average turnaround time of 33 days.
Lab Director Erchal Springer, a former assistant director of the BCA crime lab with 37 years of experience, is overseeing the Tri County DNA lab setup and accreditation.
“We are very excited to open the doors,” Springer said. “DNA is not the only thing that proves a case, but DNA is an extremely powerful tool in solving some of those unknown cases.”
It’s taken a year of preparation to set up the DNA lab, and the accreditation process with American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board for the entire lab is ongoing. Accreditation is not mandatory in Minnesota, but strengthens the lab’s credibility in court, Springer said.
The lab is located at the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office in Andover. It has hired three forensic scientists and purchased $400,000 in DNA testing equipment. “Fortunately, we were able to get experienced people. They all came from forensics laboratories,” Springer said.
After staff members were hired, new lab instrumentation, standard operating procedures and chemistry used in DNA testing had to be validated.
“It’s a long, tedious process. It probably took eight or nine months to get all the validation done. It sounds like a long time. Everything we do has to be defended in court,” Springer said.
The goal is to expand the use of DNA testing beyond violent crimes including homicides, assaults and rapes to property crimes including burglaries and thefts, he said.
The lab has a $1.6 million annual budget and 14 staff members, mostly scientists.