Editor’s note: This story discusses threats of sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.
Before her car alarm went off and sent the man running, a woman bit her attacker’s finger as he tried to muffle her screams for help.
Police hoped that some of the assailant’s DNA might be left in the victim’s mouth and help them identify the man. But by the time a sexual assault nurse examiner arrived at the police station, the victim had finished eating a sandwich and drinking a soda, likely washing away any remaining evidence.
The nurse examiner didn’t know it at the time, but what she chose to do next, to ensure that she collected any evidence she could from this groping sexual assault case in 2011 at the University of Utah, would change how investigators and forensic nurses in the Beehive State would handle these types of cases for years to come.
What was so “groundbreaking” was that the nurse examiner collected touch DNA, said Julie Valentine, the associate dean of undergraduate studies and research at Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing and a member of Wasatch Forensic Nurses.
Touch DNA, which is DNA from skin cells left behind on something that a person has touched, had not traditionally been used in groping and sexual assault cases at the time, according to Valentine.
But when the nurse examiner was left with few other options, she remembered that the state crime lab had recently improved its DNA testing methods. So, she tried something different.
Valentine and Heather Mills, forensic scientist manager at the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services, described what happened next in an article published this spring in the Journal of Forensic Nursing and a video series published with the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence.
The nurse swabbed the victim’s skin and clothing everywhere the victim said the man had touched her, and the nurse also collected the victim’s clothing. The method seemed so unusual at the time that when the nurse called the crime lab to explain why she collected what she did, she told them, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but this is all we had to go on.”
It worked. The forensic scientists found touch DNA from the man on the woman’s clothing, and investigators could identify and charge her attacker.
“Linking his DNA to the assault was critically important to the successful prosecution of the case,” Mills said.
For the last three years, Valentine has worked on a project with the National Institute of Justice, creating a series of webinars and presentations to teach forensic nurses and people in other states and foreign countries about what happened in Utah, and show how they can use touch DNA to investigate gropings and sexual assaults, too.
“I want somebody to know that if they were groped or fondled, they have options to collect evidence,” Valentine said. And they can get the therapy and the help they need from advocates to reduce their trauma, she said.
“I’ve talked to victims of groping cases that have really suffered from PTSD,” Valentine said. “It is a big deal” and a “terrifying event for someone.”
How to get support
The Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City provides help, such as therapy and advocate services, to people who have been victimized by sexual violence. Members of the organization’s mobile response team are also available to provide support to a person during a forensic exam and to help connect them with services afterward.
Rape Recovery Center’s 24/7 crisis line can be reached at 801-467-7273 and at raperecoverycenter.org.
How touch DNA is used
According to Valentine, while the concept of touch DNA has been around for more than 20 years, it generally has not been used much in investigating sexual assaults and rapes.
“Part of the reason,” she said, “is because previously, historically, it was always believed that we had to have bodily fluid” such saliva, blood or semen “to develop a DNA profile.”
But that’s changed as DNA analysis methods have become more sensitive and advanced over the years, she said.
“Touch DNA has become a resource that we use not only in sexual assaults but in other violent crimes, as well,” said Blake Nakamura, chief deputy at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. “And indeed, one of the first cases that we used it in was a homicide.”
That case, according to Nakamura, was Johnny Wall, who was convicted in 2015 of the high-profile killing of Uta von Schwedler, his ex-wife. Wall’s lawyers disputed DNA evidence gathered from skin cells found underneath her fingernails and on a pillowcase.
Even with the advancement in DNA analysis today, prosecutors still have to look at all the evidence in a case when deciding whether to charge and try someone, Nakamura said. Touch DNA is just another piece of that now, he said.
In the 2011 case at the U., the victim could not identify her attacker in a photo lineup, so the touch DNA evidence was “crucial,” according to Valentine and Mills.
When using touch DNA, it’s important to think about context, Valentine said. For instance, it might be more helpful in situations where you would not expect to find someone’s DNA, she said, such as when a victim is groped or sexually assaulted by a stranger or when a no-contact order is involved.
On the other hand, touch DNA might not be as meaningful in assaults when a victim lives with their attacker, where you’d expect to find their DNA, according to Valentine.
Other factors come into play, too, she said. Touch DNA is more likely to be found on a rough surface, like a sweater, than a smooth surface, such as a watch, Valentine said. In the 2011 case at the University of Utah, forensic scientists collected a DNA sample from the lace on the woman’s underwear.
If there is a struggle, such as when someone is being groped or sexually assaulted, Valentine said that could create friction and cause skin cells to be left behind. Touch DNA can also be collected from an assailant to see if a victim’s DNA is on them.
Generally, “men are greater skin shedders” than women, according to Valentine. And “if someone has sweaty hands or dry hands, they’re more likely to leave their DNA laying around,” she said.
Preventing future cases
After that case at the U., forensic nurses and forensic sciences in Utah met to discuss what had happened and what they could learn from it, Valentine said. They created a “Stranger Touch DNA form” to help nurse examiners collect evidence from where a victim was touched. As far as Valentine is aware, Utah is the only state to create a form like this, she said.
According to Valentine, the group also updated the state’s sexual assault examination form to include touch DNA.
Since then, Valentine and others have worked on educating law enforcement across the state about these developments to better help victims in the future, she said. Valentine said they have also reached out to colleges and transportation authorities since these groping and sexual assault cases sometimes occur on campuses and airplanes.
Once the touch DNA form became widely used in Utah, Valentine and her colleagues looked at the data, according to a news release from Brigham Young University. Out of 42 sexual assault kits collected from groping survivors, the perpetrator’s full or partial DNA profile could be developed from skin cells in six cases, the release states.
“While six out of 42 doesn’t look like a huge percentage,” Valentine said in the release, “it is when you consider what catching even one of these perpetrators means for survivors and communities, especially since uncaught perpetrators often repeat the offense and escalate in violence over time.”
On the day that the woman was groped in her car at the U., there had been a series of other sexual assaults on campus that were progressively becoming more aggressive. The man charged in these assaults had been arrested by campus police the year before after trying to film a woman in a bathroom stall.
“Any additional tool we can develop to help decrease sexual violence in our community is important,” Valentine said.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.