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Berkeley may get DNA database

Jared Saylor Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 06, 2000

Attorney General Bill Lockyer and State Senator Jackie Speier detailed plans Tuesday for an addition to the statewide DNA databank that would aid in the identification of missing children and adults. 

Under legislation approved last week the new databank will be housed at the California Department of Justice DNA Testing Lab at 626 Bancroft Way in west Berkeley. Approved with widespread bipartisan support, it is sitting on Governor Gray Davis’ desk awaiting his signature. 

The missing persons databank, which would remain separate from the convicted felon and registered sex offender databank currently kept in Berkeley, would involve voluntarily collecting DNA information from the maternal parent or relative of the missing person. 

“This program provides comfort to the relatives of missing persons. The smart thing about using new DNA technology is to convict the guilty and free the innocent,” Lockyer told parents and lab officials at a press conference at the laboratory. 

To demonstrate the procedure for obtaining DNA information, parents shared their own DNA samples by thoroughly swabbing the insides of their cheeks. Scientists will be able to compare information obtained from these cotton swabs with information from over 2,000 unidentified human remains currently kept in county coroners’ offices statewide, 150 of which are believed to belong to children. 

According to Jan Bashinski, Chief of the Bureau of Forensic Services, use of maternal DNA is preferred as it is more sensitive to testing techniques and therefore is more likely to give positive results from old bones or blood samples. 

Kim Swartz, mother of Amber Swartz-Garcia, a missing child abducted from her Pinole home in 1988, was a driving force in developing the legislation authorizing the new DNA missing person databank. 

Although her daughter has been missing for over 12 years, Swartz is hopeful that the new DNA identification procedure will bring closure to her family’s ordeal. 

“I am very optimistic that we will someday find an answer and know what happened to Amber,” Swartz said. “The hardest cases to solve are the ones where there are no witnesses. These cases cause a ripple effect throughout the community. They’re devastating. This project could be a big answer for many people still wondering.” 

The cost for performing tests on each case, estimated at about $3,000, would be covered by a $2 increase in the cost of state death certificates. The price increase would take effect on January 1, 2001 and provide funding for the DNA laboratory by July 2001. The legislature specifically requires that DNA testing and case analysis begin by January, 2002. The California Department of Justice DNA Testing Lab in Berkeley is the most advanced and well-known facility of its kind, involved in such high profile criminal cases as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the trial of accused mass murderer Charles Ng. It is currently involved in eliminating the backlog of convicted felon DNA profiles which in California alone number over 200,000. It is also the first facility to use robots for DNA analysis ensuring a lower rate of human error and is also developing new and more precise techniques and methods of DNA testing. 

Lab officials took advantage of the press conference to encourage parents to perform simple tests on their children at home. They provided test kits which included sterilized cotton swabs, an identification envelope and plastic bags for storage. 

Dr. Jon Tonkyn, Assistant Laboratory Director, demonstrated the procedure on Swartz and described what parents need to do. “Just swab the inside of both cheeks thoroughly and let the swab air dry. Keep the swab in the envelopes and store it in two plastic bags in your kitchen freezer.” 

Speier remarked, “I have two children of my own and as soon as I get home tonight I am going to be doing this with them.” 

Other items that can also be used for DNA profiling are hairs pulled out with the roots intact, clipped finger and toe nails, or dried blood from a bandage or swab. These items should also be air dried to prevent the formation of bacteria and stored in the freezer. Information from these samples could be used in a child abduction cases to identify evidence.