PROVO, Utah — A BYU nursing professor at the leading edge of helping sexual assault victims bring their assailants to justice using a little known method for collecting evidence.
When a person is a victim of a "groping" sexual assault, it's easy to assume that little physical evidence exists to track down the assailant. But scientists can actually build a DNA profile with just a few skin cells that may be left be left behind.
"Touch DNA analysis" has been refined by forensic experts for over 20 years, yet many law enforcement and healthcare personnel are unaware it exists and therefore don't collect this crucial evidence.
Professor Julie Valentine is helping to make touch DNA evidence collection a standard practice in groping cases, working with the National Institute of Justice to design a standard form for Utah sexual assault medical examiners to collect touch DNA evidence from survivor’s skin and clothing.
This form now serves as a template nationwide, thanks to research conducted by Dr. Valentine and her colleagues.
Valentine became interested in the potential of touch DNA after a 2011 breakthrough case in Utah, when a young woman was violently groped, but the assailant left no bodily fluids that could be tested.
However, the forensic nurse performing the woman’s medical exam recalled what she had recently learned about the newest developments in touch DNA analysis. The nurse made a report of everywhere the woman remembered being touched and collected her clothing.
“Then the nurse called the crime lab forensic scientist and said, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy, but this is a really concerning case, and so I gathered this evidence,’” Valentine explained. “And the forensic scientist said, ‘Well, I guess this will test what we can actually do.’”
“We really see this as being a game changer in adding something else to the toolbox for prosecuting sexual assault cases, which then leads to safer and healthier communities,” Valentine said.
“But we also want to emphasize that groping sexual assaults are traumatic events in an individual’s life. Having survivors meet with a forensic nurse and a sexual assault survivor advocate validates to those survivors that they’ve experienced something traumatic and that we are here to help you heal.”