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Greensburg DNA lab offers building blocks for justice

| Monday, May 7, 2007

A Highland Park man accused of raping several women in Pittsburgh's East End and nearby suburbs might still be free today were it not for a 2005 Pennsylvania law requiring DNA samples to be taken from convicted felons.

Keith Wood, 49, who is expected to appear at a preliminary hearing Tuesday, was serving time at a state prison in Cambria County for a parole violation in July 2005, not long after the law took effect.

At least once a day, a DNA sample from a crime scene somewhere in the United States matches up with the biological blueprint of a convicted felon in Pennsylvania.

The forensic scientists who have to test the samples are busier than ever.

"Although the law was burdensome to us in terms of resources, it certainly has paid off in the ability to solve cases," said Christine Tomsey, forensic DNA manager for the State Police DNA Laboratory in Greensburg. "I think the ability to solve the cold cases has far exceeded our expectations across the nation."

When the Legislature mandated DNA testing of all prisoners two years ago, about 70,000 DNA samples flooded into the lab, leading to a huge backlog.

Tomsey believes a $1 million expansion and renovation of the laboratory now under way, funded mostly by federal grants, will help it keep up with its DNA analyses -- and that makes prosecutors happy.

DNA samples taken from convicted felons have helped crack cases big and small.

State police arrested Ralph James Heasley on April 13 on burglary, criminal trespass and criminal mischief charges in a 2002 burglary at the Adamsburg Community and Volunteer Fire Company Social Club in Hempfield.

They claim he got inside the social club by breaking a men's bathroom window. He cut himself and fled without stealing anything, but he left behind blood that would come back to haunt him five years later, police said. Heasley -- who had to give a DNA sample after he was convicted of other crimes in 2005 -- confessed to the break-in after being approached with the DNA evidence, police said.

"I didn't realize they were going back through all these looking at DNA," said Ken Wees, president of the fire company. "I'm glad state police did their diligence. The fact they got the guy and justice is being served is a good thing."

The DNA sample came through the lab in Greensburg, where the state's samples of the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, are maintained.

Each week, the system automatically checks DNA samples in the nationwide database against other samples. Some match to other unsolved cases. Others match to convicted felons.

In January, samples in the convicted offenders' database were matched to seven unsolved cases in Allegheny County, said Dan Fitzsimmons, the chief trial deputy under District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

"That's one month in one year where their efforts have allowed us to obtain important investigative leads in cases that were unsolved at that point," Fitzsimmons said. "Obviously, it's a great help to us to have them doing that work. We all realize, I think, that juries have come to expect solid proof like that, and when you have it, it's an absolutely wonderful tool to use."

The laboratory and its employees have been toiling to keep up with demand as nearly 700 new samples arrive each week.

"We went from receiving about 4,000 samples a year to 40,000 samples a year," Tomsey said. "We now need storage for these samples in addition to high-output technology to analyze the data."

All of the state's convicted offender DNA samples are stored at the laboratory, which must keep those samples for 50 years, Tomsey said.

In addition to the renovations, a federal grant paid for the lab to outsource most of the initial 70,000 DNA samples. Tomsey expects a similar grant will eliminate the rest of that initial backlog.

The scientists typically are able to keep up with the prisoners' DNA samples as they come into the laboratory, but Tomsey said there always will be a small backlog of cases, particularly because they are making so many matches.

Every time that happens, the original sample must be reanalyzed and a new sample taken from the felon to confirm the match.

"We're almost a product of our own success," Tomsey said.

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