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Police get DNA grant to help solve cold cases

Worcester Telegram & Gazette,
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Worcester, MA

WORCESTER — A federal grant for about $230,000 will help the Police Department pay for DNA testing and the investigation into several unsolved killings and rapes.

The grant, announced recently by the National Institute of Justice and the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, gives the department resources it wouldn’t be able to produce within its budget to send DNA samples to private laboratories with specialized testing.

The department will begin the arduous task of reviewing the 61 unsolved homicides and hundreds of forcible rape cases that could benefit from additional DNA testing.

“With this funding we’re hoping we can pursue cases and bring closure to families” who are victims of violent crime, Police Chief Gary J. Gemme said.

Detectives Daniel F. Sullivan and William T. Donovan and Sgt. Mark J. Sawyer are members of the unresolved homicide unit, a crew of investigators working on unsolved killings.

Lt. David P. Grady, head of the crime scene unit, said only 14 grant awards were given. The money will help send investigators to travel in order to interview witnesses and victims as well, he said.

The department investigates about 300 sexual assaults a year. Through the grant, the investigators will focus on forcible rapes between 1997 and 2007. There are, on average, 121 forcible rapes a year in that time frame, said Hemali Gunaratne, a laboratory technician for the department.

It will take about six months to create a database of cases. Officials will then focus on what cases have biological evidence available. Evidence will then be tracked down.

“We do have some unresolved homicide cases we are going to put up front although I can’t say which ones,” said Capt. Paul B. Saucier, head of the Detective Bureau. “We are going after the cases that have the best chances to yield biological evidence.”

Testing at private, accredited laboratories can cost $600 to $1,000 for an item, but the cost increases if a quick turnaround is requested. Because the state crime lab handles so much material it can take up to 10 months for results.

Investigators believe biological evidence considered degraded, limited or otherwise compromised could produce DNA profiles now since technology has advanced.

District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. lauded the unresolved homicide unit and the cooperative work between his assistant district attorneys, his state police investigators and Worcester police.

Mr. Early said there have been several recent cases in which DNA helped solve murders and resulted in convictions.

The timing of the grant is also important, Mr. Early said. Legislation allowing for buccal swabs of convicted felons instead of blood samples should place many more felons in the state’s CODIS system quicker, he said.

There is a backlog of testing in the 20,000 to 25,000 range, Mr. Early said, and once the samples are caught up there is a better chance more serious crimes will be pushed forward.

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