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Skin cell DNA gives authorities a new way to prosecute sexual assault

A BYU researcher is advancing the field of research that investigates the availability of DNA left by the human touch. Photo: Canva

SALT LAKE CITY — Skin cell DNA is being used to identify suspects who may touch a victim’s clothing during a sexual assault. This is possible because research has found that skin cells are left behind. And they can be used to identify a suspect based on their DNA.

Dr. Julie Valentine, a nursing professor at Brigham Young University, has been working to develop techniques for Skin DNA identification, and she said they can be used in groping cases or other situations where no bodily fluids are left behind.

The DNA from the skin cells can often meet the STR DNA standard used by the national FBI database, allowing a search and potential identification of a suspect.

“I had a case where a woman was abducted by two men. One man held her down while the other raped her,” Professor Valentine told KSL Newsradio. “I was able to collect DNA from both.”

Professor Valentine says the skin cell DNA can back up a victim’s account of what happened.

“If the survivor reports non-consensual groping of their genitals, well, if we develop skin cells from the genital area, that corroborates there was non-consensual touch,” she said.

She also says it would be useful in cases where a no-contact order or protective order is in effect.

“We shouldn’t find any (DNA) of the individual who the protective order is against … on that survivor.”

Professor Valentine says there have been successful prosecutions using the technique, and police agencies from around the world have expressed interest in the technique.