WASHINGTON — In a bustling corner of the FBI headquarters, Special Agent Jack Quill is poring over an X-ray that bears an odd-looking pattern not unlike the bar code on a box of cereal.
But these horizontal lines have nothing to do with supermarkets. What Quill is holding on the oblong transparency is a piece of evidence that most likely will put a rape suspect behind bars.
The case is one of the 400 in which the FBI's DNA Analysis Unit has completed its work since its opening last December. Work on 600 others, referred from law enforcement agencies throughout the country, is in progress.
"It takes us probably two to three weeks before we can even start a case now, because of our backlog," said John W. Hicks, the FBI assistant director who runs the bureau's sprawling laboratory division. "And it will probably get worse."
That is one of the reasons that Hicks and other DNA experts, both in government and out, are applauding decisions by officials in Orange County and other jurisdictions to build their own laboratories to track down violent criminals through DNA "fingerprints."
"We think it's a very powerful technology that's going to have a tremendous impact on law enforcement," especially in identifying rapists and, to a lesser extent, murderers, Hicks said.
DNA testing technology represents a major breakthrough for law enforcement because it is a highly reliable method of positively matching blood, semen, hair or tissue samples taken from a crime scene with a blood sample taken from a suspect.
The older technology of blood serology is effective in excluding suspects, but it hardly ever produces a positive identification.
DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid, is an organic material found in the chromosomes of every human being. It carries the basic genetic code that determines individual characteristics.
By matching the repeating chemical patterns in those sections of DNA that bind genes together, scientists can routinely make identifications with certainties of one in several billion.
Eventually, law enforcement officials hope to build a computerized central DNA "fingerprint" identification system that will allow authorities to determine whether a series of rapes or murders across the country was the work of a single person, or whether a suspect arrested in one state was connected to violent crimes in another.
Despite questions raised by defense attorneys and civil libertarians, the technology has been accepted in trial courts in 34 states, according to an official of one of the two major private DNA testing laboratories in the nation.
Appellate courts in three of those states--Maryland, Virginia and Florida--have upheld the use of DNA testing, said John W. Huss, vice president of Cellmark Diagnostics in Germantown, Md., about 25 miles northwest of Washington. No appellate court has yet rejected the technology.
However, only two states and one local jurisdiction--Virginia, North Carolina and Nassau County, N.Y.--have opened DNA testing units in their own crime laboratories, according to the FBI. Six other state and local agencies, including the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's Department, are on their way.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Oct. 17 to spend $200,000 to create a DNA unit in the county crime laboratory, $80,000 of which will be from private sources that have contributed to the Sheriff's Advisory Council.
The decision was prompted in part by the disclosure that a suspect in the recent rape of a 12-year-old girl in Huntington Beach had been acquitted of a rape charge five months earlier because prosecutors were late in obtaining DNA evidence from a private laboratory. Had the evidence been received sooner, authorities have said, the man would probably have been convicted.
"The sooner we get it on-line, we feel, the better off we're going to be," said Lt. Richard J. Olson, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "We feel that evidence of this type is so overwhelming that in a lot of cases, rather than go to trial, we'll get more guilty pleas." And that, Olson said, would save both time and money.
Further, in the cases that go to trial, police officials said, an in-house DNA lab would eliminate the need to hire expert witnesses from private laboratories, which charge fees of as much as $1,000 for a single court appearance.
Exonerations can result in savings too, police said. If a DNA test determines early on that a prime suspect could not possibly have been the assailant, police are not wasting time or money going after the wrong person.
However, it is difficult to determine the cost-effectiveness of establishing a DNA unit in a public crime lab, Huss said. The FBI performs its analyses for local police agencies at no cost, but the growing demand may mean longer waits for evidence.