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DNA lab solves crimes, changes lives

DNA lab solves crimes, changes lives

PTC Laboratories President Kim Gorman loads DNA samples into the centerfuge.

Kim Gorman checked and rechecked the test results in her Columbia lab. There was no doubt: They locked up the wrong guy. It wasn’t Johnny Briscoe who raped and robbed a woman at knifepoint in her apartment.

Cigarette butts from the crime scene, stored away and forgotten in a St. Louis Police Department crime lab, were tested for DNA. The saliva came from an acquaintance who framed Briscoe.

Twenty-three years after being wrongfully convicted of rape, after spending nearly half his life in a Missouri prison, Johnny Briscoe was set free in 2006.

DNA analyst Ana Evans uses a pipette to prepare DNA for testing.

Science is often perceived as being cold, with pure facts and no heart or soul.

But the laboratory at Paternity Testing Corporation has provided numerous life-changing test results since Gorman, her husband and her daughter formed the company in 1996.

The wrongfully convicted, yearning to be set free; the families of crime victims, waiting for justice; the father fighting for custody of his child; the adoptive parents worried that their child was conceived through incest or kidnapped before being offered for adoption: all are depending on absolutely accurate DNA tests. Getting the answer wrong would be devastating.

DNA analyst Ana Evans prepares DNA samples for testing.

PTC, which has 35 employees, tests the DNA of more than 40,000 people per year. It is one of 42 paternity labs in North America accredited by the American Association of Blood Banks and is among the five largest by volume. PTC works cases for Missouri law enforcement free of charge and performs government-requested tests for agencies in other states.

Gorman never planned to enter crime fighting, but forensic work is often the most rewarding part of her job. “You’ve got some poor guy who’s being held for something,” Gorman said. “They’re just sure it’s him, and you find out it’s not. You feel like you really accomplished something to show he was innocent, and they should let him go. And on the other side of it, it’s also incredibly rewarding to know that you helped get this person off the street, locked up somewhere.”

Gorman, however, knew she wanted to be a scientist. She graduated with a chemistry degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 1992. From 1989 to 1994, she worked on the Human Genome Project, analyzing human DNA using Polymerase Chain Reaction, hybridization and sequencing techniques.

Joesph Gorman with PTC Laboratories goes through the file storage room where more than 100,000 DNA samples are refrigerated and stored.

In 1994, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Crime Laboratory was looking for people with experience in DNA testing to work in the crime lab. Gorman accepted the better-paying job and for the next three years worked as a DNA criminalist.

“She came with a lot of experience in DNA extraction, which was very unusual at the time,” said Donna Becherer, a forensic scientist with the St. Louis police department and a member of the PTC Board of Scientific Advisors. “It was still pretty new that people were even trying to extract DNA using anything remotely close to the techniques we were using in extracting segments of it.”

Gorman enjoyed her work in the crime lab but disliked having to work with gore. “I don’t like working with body parts or with partially decomposed bodies,” she said. “Some people really get into that, and it’s really interesting to them, but I just don’t like it.”

Gorman and her husband, Joe Gorman, an attorney, along with her daughter, Shelly Beckwith, a chemist, decided to open a DNA testing lab in Columbia. “We wanted to move to a smaller town than St. Louis, and we actually wanted to go to a smaller place than Columbia, but we felt that with the university in Columbia that it was the most logical choice.”

Becherer called Gorman “civic minded” and said the lab has “a very dedicated staff, and people are not willing to go home until everything they can do that day is done.”

Beckwith’s husband, John, is the business manager, Joe Gorman provides legal expertise and performs administrative duties, and Kim Gorman acts as laboratory supervisor for PTC. She oversees all aspects of the testing and makes sure the lab meets DNA testing standards set up by the FBI-sponsored DNA Advisory Board.

Providing Forensic Evidence

Paternity cases are important and life altering for families but much less challenging scientifically than forensic cases, Gorman said.

“We’ll do anything and everything that involves DNA identity testing,” she said. “Sometimes it’s identifying the deceased, sometimes it’s working from a crime scene, sometimes it’s working from a sexual assault kit — it just depends on what happened,” Gorman said.

PTC President Kim Gorman goes over the pipetted buffer solution with DNA technician Drew Backer.

DNA testing has freed 237 innocent people from prison in the United States, 17 of whom were inmates on death row, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization. In 103 of these cases, DNA has also put the right person behind bars. Often, the causes of the wrongful convictions are eyewitness misidentification and bad forensic science.

A few years ago Gorman and PTC helped create a partial profile for the man who raped and murdered a child in the 1980s. The partial profile did not fit the man the authorities had identified as a suspect, but after being entered in the CODIS, the national databank of DNA, there was a match — a man who had lived 30 miles from the victim and had since been incarcerated for similar crimes.

The family of the 13-year-old spent 23 years waiting for an answer, and Gorman’s work at PTC gave them some closure.

Gorman’s forensic work occasionally lands her in the courtroom where she is called to provide expert testimony. During the retrial of former Columbia police officer Steven Rios in 2008, Gorman testified that slain MU student Jesse Valencia had DNA matching Rios under his fingernails and had Rios’ hairs on his body. Rios was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Battling Unrealistic Portrayals

DNA analysts use the double helix, at right, to correctly match paternity tests at PTC.

Real-life forensic work can be just as dramatic as the work depicted by movie and television characters such as CSI’s Gil Grissom, but the portrayal of the day-to-day routine is unrealistic. Forensic scientists never conduct interviews with witnesses and never make arrests. In fact, most scientists testing DNA are non-commissioned civilian employees. Even more ridiculous on television crime shows is the “science” used to catch the bad guys.

“You can’t walk into a crime lab and push a button, and it tells you everything you ever wanted to know about a person,” Gorman said. “It just doesn’t work that way in real life, and I think it gives unrealistic expectations to people.”

Shows like CSI generate interest in forensic work, but people coming into the industry don’t often find what they expect. Solving crimes is satisfying, but much of the work is routine. As a criminalist, Gorman occasionally got to go to crime scenes, but only a few times a year. “You’re processing the same stuff every day; you do the same thing every day,” Gorman said. “It’s not the excitement you see on TV.”

Supporting Causes

While running a high-stakes, high-volume DNA lab, Gorman has managed to devote time to social causes.

“Kim and her lab are a little jewel in the crown of Columbia,” said Ezio Moscatelli, emeritus professor of biochemistry at MU and friend of the Gormans. “They’re very low key and behind the scenes but are very active in trying to make everything better.”

Gorman has gotten PTC involved with testing that ensures children adopted from foreign countries are really children given up by their parents and not children who have been abducted or taken from their parents.

She first got involved with Guatemalan adoptions because the adoption agencies needed to determine whether the purported mother had kidnapped the baby for money. A longtime PTC employee, Rosalina Guthrie, is a native of Guatemala and knew that there was a need for this service.

“In typical Kim style, she took it way beyond what she actually paid to do there, and now she’s very involved in trying to raise money for the organization that cares for children until they can be adopted,” Becherer said.

Sometimes genetic testing shows that a child was conceived through incest. Once PTC knows this fact, the lab can notify the adoption agency. The disclosure is not made to dissuade adoption but to let the adoptive parents know that their child might have some genetic problems. Knowing that the child may have problems caused by incest helps the adoptive families be prepared to deal with whatever might lie ahead.

“The families were happy to know,” Guthrie, PTC’s international representative, said. “Sometimes they had perceptions of problems, and now they know why.” Guthrie came to the United States from Guatemala about 10 years ago. She often accompanies Gorman on trips to Guatemala, where the workdays can last almost 24 hours.

“We want to do as much as possible in the five days or whatever we are there,” Guthrie said. “She is not there only because of the business. She wants to go see the kids and the orphanages too.”

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, there was a call for volunteers. PTC sent employees, including Gorman’s daughter, Shelley Beckwith, to help, leaving the company short-handed and placing a burden on the busy lab. Two PTC employees spent nearly six months in Baton Rouge.

From Left, Michelle and John Beckwith and Joe and Kim Gorman.

The Gormans did more than allow employees to leave the lab short-handed. Besides gathering necessary supplies to send to people left homeless by Katrina, they also offered the use of PTC’s facilities to a competitor who had a lab in the New Orleans area.

“If she knows somebody needs something, she is right in there,” Becherer said.

The Gormans also “really try to provide for their employees,” Guthrie said. They installed a gym in the building and have celebrations on employee birthdays.

“It’s a hard place to work because there’s a lot of work to be done, and the pace is fast, and the hours are long, but the atmosphere is just amazing,” Moscatellis said. “Everybody’s just enthused to be there.”

Paternity testing fraught with tension

Paternity testing is relatively routine for lab scientists and not as dramatic on the surface as forensics work, but for anxious customers awaiting results, the task is fraught with tension.

“Sometimes it’s very emotional, especially if you have someone who finds out their child isn’t their child or finds out they have a child that’s almost an adult, and they didn’t even know the child existed,” said Kim Gorman, co-founder of Paternity Testing Corp.

The consequences for inaccurate paternity testing are grave. Rightful parents can be refused access to their child while others might be forced to support a child who is not their own.

Without PTC, Harold Bastien of Miami would have lost his 4-year-old son, Steve Antoine. After filing for paternity rights, Bastien had himself and the boy secretly tested. Steve’s mother, Marie Antoine, alleged that Bastien was not the father, refusing him access to Steve.

PTC performed the test and concluded that there was a 99.99 percent probability that Bastien was the biological father. Marie Antoine said that PTC’s conclusions were incorrect, leading Bastien, with an order from the judge in the custody case, to seek a second test from LabCorp in Burlington, N.C.

To Bastien’s dismay, LabCorp concluded that there was a zero percent probability of paternity. Bastien requested that the court clerk require LabCorp to run the test again, something he would probably not know to do if it weren’t for the first test run by PTC. LabCorp did, and this time it came up with the same results as PTC and a 99.97 percent probability of paternity.

LabCorp had compared 13 chromosome locations. Finding one mismatch between Bastien’s and Steve’s DNA, the geneticist tested four more markers. Finding a second mismatch, LabCorp concluded that Bastien was not the father.

In comparison, PTC compared 15 locations and performed specialized testing after finding one mismatch. The specialized test revealed that the mismatch was actually a genetic mutation. LabCorp’s mistake: Without the additional specialized testing, the geneticist was unable to determine that the mismatches were indeed mutations, a mistake that could have caused Bastien to lose custody of his child.

To rule out paternity, PTC requires four mismatches out of 15 DNA locations in comparison with the two present on the LabCorp test, which is the minimum number required by the American Association of Blood Banks. The AABB sets the requirements for DNA labs, but the minimum required isn’t always enough. This was made obvious by Bastien’s case.

PTC bills itself as the only DNA testing lab in the country that guarantees a 99.99 percent probability of paternity. When PTC started, the national requirement set by the American Association of Blood Banks was only 95 percent probability.

Confidence in test results can be vital in dealing with customers. “A lot of times you get an alleged father who just found out that his child wasn’t his child, and he wants to know if you could have made a mistake or if there could be a problem with the test,” Gorman said.

Multiple testing as well as special protocols reduce the possibility for human error and make PTC’s guarantee feasible. “They do a whole lot more tests than the other paternity testing locations do,” said Donna Becherer, a forensic scientist with the St. Louis police department and a member of the PTC Board of Scientific Advisors. “They don’t stop testing on a case until they know the answer. … Other places don’t do that because it’s not in the contract.”

Not every lab has such high standards. Many people seeking paternity tests are unaware of the unreliability of Internet paternity testing sites, some of which aren’t even real labs and might produce fabricated results.

“Most people don’t know that there are no regulations on paternity testing, and so a lot of people just go on the Internet,” Gorman said.

“One company was giving clients a sample test that we had posted on our Web site, and another company was using our sample tests as models to produce bogus test results.”

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