Seeking Answers: Forensic DNA Analysis from a Victim’s Perspective

Today’s guest blog is written by AnnaKay Kruger, Promega. Reposted from the ISHI Report with permission.


Just nineteen years old, Ashley Spence was a sophomore attending Arizona State University when she became the victim of a home invasion rape. A stranger broke into her apartment in the middle of the night and subjected her to a brutal, hours-long assault, from which she barely escaped with her life.


“I never was able to see the face of the person who was committing these horrific acts against me,” said Spence. “He got away, but I was fortunate enough to survive. Seven years went by, and there were absolutely no leads.”


Spence described the fear she experienced in the years following the assault as “truly paralyzing.” She lived in terror of the possibility of her attacker’s return.



“He told me not to tell anybody, that he would be watching, and that if I did tell anybody he would kill me,” said Spence. “I ended up having to drop out of school. I moved to Newport Beach, CA before I relocated back to my home state of Texas and it was there, seven years later in 2010, that I got the shocking phone call: there was a DNA match in my case.”


Unbeknownst to Spence, in her attempt to escape her attacker she had inadvertently moved to the very town where he lived. Later, he would even admit to having seen her there. He was ultimately arrested attempting to break into a home where three women were living, just a few blocks from where Spence had lived in Newport Beach. He resisted arrest, a felony offense. Due to a law in California requiring that DNA should be taken upon any felony arrest, law enforcement conducted a buccal swab and submitted his DNA to the federal database, CODIS.


“I had no idea what he looked like, but it was through the power of forensic DNA that they were able to prove at trial that it was 38 trillion times more likely it was this man’s DNA on me than anybody else’s,” said Spence.


Her attacker was sentenced to 138 years in prison.


The Promise of DNA Forensics

Forensic DNA analysis emerged in the 1980’s as a means through which law enforcement, in addition to things like fingerprinting and blood type comparison, could trace physical evidence from a crime scene back to a specific individual. At its inception, forensic DNA had the potential to convict offenders as well as exonerate the innocent, and it evolved over the decades that followed to become some of the most reliable evidence that can be collected at a scene.


Countless violent crimes and cold cases have been solved through DNA forensics and, over time, the expansion of the federal database and technological advancements in the laboratory have bolstered its status as one of if not the best tool available to law enforcement in investigations. Additionally, the recent emergence of things like forensic investigative genetic genealogy, where suspect DNA can be crossmatched to familial DNA that has been submitted to commercially available genealogy sites, has closed even more cases than would otherwise be closed through traditional DNA analysis alone.


Victims Left Waiting for Justice

­Despite the breakthrough of DNA forensics, there remain limits to its application in the criminal justice process, including restrictions on the types of arrests that warrant the collection of DNA as well as deficits in both resources and existing technology that can lead to delays and can sometimes result in cases going completely cold. Many victims and their families do not discover this until they find themselves seeking answers, only to be told that there are none—as was the case for Ryan Backmann, the founder of the victim advocacy organization Project: Cold Case and himself the son of homicide victim Clifford Backmann, who was shot and killed on Oct. 10, 2009 in Jacksonville, FL.


In describing his experience immediately following his father’s murder, Backmann explained that his exposure to law enforcement proceedings had been, until that point, limited to what he saw in the media.


“My entire experience with law enforcement had been watching television and in the true crime realm,” said Backmann. “I expected an arrest within hours of my dad’s murder. When it became days, I just thought that the guy was on the run. It wasn’t until those days became weeks and those weeks became months that I started having conversations with the lead detective on my dad’s case and they told me that they did not have a suspect, that what little physical evidence they had had been sent to the lab, and that they had no idea where to go from there.”


Backmann’s father’s case was suspended after a year and a half of investigating and not long after that Backmann switched careers to become a victim’s advocate. In 2015 he founded Project: Cold Case, an organization that began simply as a place where families of homicide victims could memorialize their loved ones. However, Project: Cold Case grew into a resource through which surviving families could work closely with law enforcement to understand why their case has gone cold, whether there are potentially unexplored avenues of investigation and more broadly to educate both parties on the hardships and struggles of living with an unsolved case.


“When you’re a family member of a victim in an unsolved homicide, you’re living this in real time,” said Backmann. “You’re coming to the realization that maybe they’re not going to find the person that killed your loved one. When you sit face to face with somebody and they tell you the case is cold—I never thought I’d have to prepare myself that there would come a day where the police would stop looking for the guy that killed my dad. That was a very poignant moment in my journey.”


Though it is an unfortunate reality that many crimes will go unsolved even with the most sophisticated technology at hand, there are ways to increase the likelihood that offenders are brought to justice. Beyond the advent of new and better methods for DNA analysis, this can also be achieved through legislation to expand DNA collection and the protection of victim’s rights at a policy level.


Improved Forensic Policy and Legislation

The details of Ashley Spence’s case are horrific, and equally horrific to Spence was the realization that, had her attacker been arrested in Arizona where she went to school, or in Texas where she resided when they finally caught him in 2010, he would still be at large, presumably subjecting other women to the same torture that Spence was forced to endure seven years prior.


“He was a very violent man, and when they arrested him, they found in his possession women’s underwear and ID cards from all over the world,” said Spence. “What haunted me the most when it happened was that I was not the first. I was not the last, but through the power of forensic DNA and having the law to take DNA upon all felony arrests, he’s unable to harm anybody ever again.”


Following her attacker’s arrest, Spence delved into DNA forensics and the laws stipulating how DNA can be collected and used in criminal investigations. She points to her extensive exploration of this topic as well as the birth of her children as the impetus for the eventual founding of her organization: the DNA Justice Project.


“Part of finding the healing and the light after my experience has been to create awareness, to educate the public and policymakers about what goes into the national database,” she said.


The DNA Justice Project focuses on legislative advocacy and forensic policy and seeks to educate lawmakers on the value of forensic DNA.


“I’ve been fortunate enough to partner with the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has done exceptional work to count, to test, to track every rape kit,” said Spence. “What we realized was that you can do all this amazing work on rape kit reform, but what you need is the other side of the coin, which is getting the DNA into the database.”


Spence went on to explain that, according to the Department of Justice, per state, there are 40-50,000 samples of uncollected offender DNA, also known as lawfully owed DNA, missing from the federal database. This could be a result of anything from ignored court orders, people not understanding that they are supposed to have their DNA taken, others fleeing after arrest or intake errors.


“There are variety of reasons why we’re missing these samples, but this number is actually shocking,” said Spence. “When we don’t test the DNA, we are not only withholding justice for victims, but we also know that there are people that are innocent and wrongfully accused of crimes that are sitting in prison right now because the DNA has not been tested properly.”


Spence argued that, while many harbor ethical concerns about broadening DNA collection, this is typically due to misconceptions about what is collected and from there, what genetic information is obtained.


“It’s not giving your whole DNA genome of 3 billion markers,” said Spence. “What actually goes into CODIS is from a minimally invasive cheek swab, and from there it is just 20 markers that have been picked specifically by genetic scientists. It wouldn’t say what street I live on. It wouldn’t say that I’m Lebanese, or what color my hair is. It wouldn’t say that I’m predisposed to any genetic diseases.”


She added: “I like to explain to people that this database is not searchable by any third parties. Your arrest record is public, your mug shots are public, but what goes into the actual DNA database cannot be found by any third party, so you cannot be precluded from getting a job by having your DNA in the database.”


For his part, Backmann mentioned that it’s important to put policies in place that ensure that cold cases aren’t lost in the shuffle or forgotten during agency turnover, that evidence from cold cases gets retested at regular intervals and that there is clear communication to families even when retesting doesn’t yield any results.


“The goal is to get the case to current investigative standards using whatever technology is there today that wasn’t there the last time it was looked at,” said Backmann. “If we set the bar there, we hope that it’s resolved while bringing it up to today’s current investigative standards.”


The Importance of Advocacy in Supporting Victims

Part of the work that Backmann’s organization does is to help families figure out whether new tools like forensic investigative genetic genealogy could be applicable to their case and which questions they need to ask to generate interest from the appropriate investigating agency.


“The first question is always: do they have suspect DNA in your loved one’s case? A lot of times the families just don’t know. Historically, a lot of the information about the physical evidence has been withheld from families,” said Backmann. “But some of these cases are decades old. So, it’s created an opportunity for us as advocates to help families understand what this technology is and how it can be used, as well as the right questions to ask.”


But in the long run—even if victims and their families get justice—Backmann argued that there really isn’t any such thing as closure, at least not in the way that the term is often used.


“I have gone to over 100 trials with families. I have seen convictions, I’ve seen the death penalty imposed by a jury. I have seen life sentences and plea deals. I’ve seen the gamut of things that happen in the judicial system, and one thing that I have never seen is a family get what is described as closure,” he said. “It’s an unrealistic expectation that we put on families, not maliciously, but the problem is nobody is really listening to these families and understanding that at the end of this, that loved one is still dead. They’re never coming back for the next birthday, holiday, or anniversary, and every one of those days is going to bring back all those feelings of loss and trauma.”

With this in mind, Backmann’s organization works to provide families with long-term support from the moment they are in contact and for as long as the family feels they need it. For families that never get answers, it can be especially torturous.


“What haunts me is that this person could do it again. No matter what happens to them, my dad isn’t coming back. But will they continue killing? Now that they’ve gotten away with it for almost 14 years, do they feel like they can do it again?” said Backmann. “When we see new technology and we see these breakthroughs and we see these resolutions, it gives us hope that one day we will have those answers and that we will know that that person responsible can’t harm somebody else again.”


For everyone involved, it’s vitally important that forensic analysts and law enforcement understand the impact that their work has on the lives of victims and their families.


“I love to share my story because I am just one of the millions,” said Spence. “The lives that forensic analysts and law enforcement have saved are beyond measure and those who work on these cases are my heroes, my personal heroes, and I am so grateful. I’m floored when I travel and I see all the young people that are stepping into this field and this makes me so excited, because they don’t realize the actual lives that they are saving through their work.”