NORTH CHARLESTON — Charleston County officials are planning to bring a DNA lab to the region, giving investigators and prosecutors newfound hope for cracking cases dependent on biological evidence.
The proposed biological science center, which would test DNA samples collected for criminal investigations, would be located on Leeds Avenue next to the sheriff’s office in North Charleston, according to a Charleston County projects team spearheading the idea.
Charleston County Council granted $3.4 million toward the project at the end of January for authorities to begin designing the building, which would ultimately cost an estimated $8.7 million.
State Law Enforcement Division currently processes DNA evidence collected by Lowcountry law enforcement. Local detectives gather evidence in a variety of cases, from car break-ins to homicides, as well as sexual assault kits in rape investigations.
Forensic labs operated by SLED then analyze specimens of evidence collected at crime scenes for DNA samples. They enter identified samples into the FBI’s national DNA database, CODIS, to check for a match to prior convicted offenders and those arrested on felonies in South Carolina and elsewhere.
SLED’s labs can be overburdened — municipalities from all over the state submit their evidence to Columbia. North Charleston police alone sent 429 submissions to SLED between 2018 and 2021, according to Charleston County government. Charleston police sent 298 samples during that time.
Ken Hagge, North Charleston deputy chief of investigations, said a regional lab would be more efficient. DNA could be processed in a timelier manner while creating a stronger bond between law enforcement and lab technicians.
A more efficient system could lead to more investigative breakthroughs, Hagge said, specifically with the department’s cold casework.
“When you start talking about cold cases, that is the huge selling point for me,” Hagge said. “I talk to these mothers, fathers and family members of people who’ve been killed, and they have no closure. Anything we can do to stay ahead of technology with a DNA lab would be incredible for us.”
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said officials wanted a local DNA lab for the region for some time, but funding was a stumbling block.
“These labs require state-of-the-art equipment and cutting-edge expertise,” Wilson said. “We tried years ago to establish a lab through a grant, but the money dried up and it ended that effort.”
The Charleston Police Department built a forensics crime lab in 2021 in West Ashley that provides an array of services, such as drug analysis and body fluid identification. But the city also planned for the unit to one day have a DNA laboratory, the city said back when it opened.
The Charleston County projects team still felt a separate construction project for the county would be worthwhile. Council agreed.
“From a user standpoint, it’s the city of Charleston’s lab and that’s it,” Lauren Knapp, the county’s public safety directorate, said at the January council meeting. “Being able to offer it to Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms and our smaller municipalities would be at the discretion of the city of Charleston. We have a debt ultimately to all of Charleston County.”
Sgt. Beth Wolfsen with Charleston police said the department supported the county’s project and looked forward to collaborating with the team.
The county hopes for construction to begin as early as spring of 2023, pending funding opportunities to support the project, though they are still working to find the additional funding necessary, the project’s team said in January.
Kelsey Barlow, the county spokeswoman, said in May there were no updates regarding the lab or funding, but the team is moving forward on the project.