Police use DNA to solve everyday crimes

The burglar was undone by his taste for strawberry soda.

RazJohn Smyer, a suspect in a string of Denver-area break-ins, often checked his victims' refrigerators and helped himself to a drink. The soda cans he left behind gave police enough DNA evidence to link him to five burglaries. He's now serving a 20-year sentence.

Smyer's conviction is just one example of how DNA evidence is increasingly being used to solve everyday property crimes across the nation. Once reserved mostly for violent cases, such as rape and murder, genetic testing is now much cheaper and faster than when the technology was new.

“Regular watchers of CSI may be led to believe that this technology is already being used in this way, but it's really brand-new,” said John Roman of the Urban Institute, lead author of a study on the issue. “This really is the start of a revolution in policing.”

The evidence can include almost any biological material left at a crime scene: saliva taken from food, skin cells from the steering wheel of a stolen car, drops of blood from a thief who got cut on a window pane.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have used DNA testing in burglary and robbery cases regularly since 2004, said Deputy Chief Ken Miller. But a staffing shortage in the crime lab has reduced the number, he said. For example, Charlotte police used the testing for 166 burglary cases last year with 97 successful hits. The number of cases this year is down to 44 with 22 hits.

By using DNA, authorities are five times more likely to identify a suspect than with fingerprints alone. DNA also doubles the number of suspects who are identified, arrested and prosecuted, according to the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Justice.

Burglars identified with DNA evidence in Denver usually plead guilty because prosecutors “have very solid evidence,” said District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.

For many years, the high cost of DNA tests and the long wait for results made it difficult for authorities to use the technology in property crimes.

But genetic testing has come a long way since 1989, when an accurate analysis took about 10 weeks and cost $1,000. Analysis on some cases now takes as little as 12 hours and costs only about $50.

Staff writer Christopher D. Kirkpatrick contributed.