Columbus Police Opens State-Of-The-Art DNA Lab

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One of the most powerful tools ever developed in modern criminal investigation is DNA testing.

It's helped identify suspects in everything from freshly-committed crimes to long-ago cold cases.

The Columbus Police Department recently opened a new state-of-the-art DNA lab.

DNA testing has had a revolutionary impact on the criminal justice system including for one Columbus man who was freed by it.

Walter Smith is a five-time bodybuilding champion. His gait is a little off right now because he's recovering from double bilateral hip surgery.

But that's nothing compared to the challenge he faced fighting wrongful imprisonment on three rapes that occurred in Columbus between 1982 and 1984.

“Hair did not match. Fiber did not match. Fingerprints did not match. None of the evidence from three women and three different crime scenes matched Walter Smith at all. But they still sent me to prison,” he said.

One of the women picked him out of a photo lineup of suspects.

He spent the next 11 years fighting the conviction while serving a sentence for an unrelated armed robbery.

Smith became the first inmate in Franklin County to seek DNA testing. The courts turned him down nine times.

But, in 1996, 10TV discovered there was some crime scene evidence from the trial that was still in the Columbus police property room that hadn't been tested.

Then County Prosecutor Mike Miller was asked to allow Smith's family to pay for a DNA test. He did and they found Smith's DNA didn't match the rapists.

Smith walked out of Madison Correctional Institution a free man on December 6, 1996.

“I thank God for it. That's all I can say man. Because were it not for DNA testing I’d be looking at a parole date of 2084,” Smith said.

Smith's DNA test was done by at a private out-of-state crime lab that took 10 days to get the results back.

At the Columbus Police Department's new $15 million state-of-the-art crime lab, results can come back in as little as 24 hours.

 “The DNA processes that were used 20 years ago are not the same DNA processes we use today,” Columbus Crime Lab Director Jami St. Clair said.

This new lab is almost six times larger than the old one, with a half dozen more DNA analysts, using almost three times the amount of scientific instruments.

The Columbus Police Department no longer has to send out any evidence to an outside lab for testing. 

Sanitation and security is kept at a high level to guard against evidence contamination. Those entering the testing area are required to put on a special jacket and latex gloves and give a saliva sample to document their identity for admission.

“Having a laboratory be able to give you that investigative lead, with a name, that this DNA left at a crime scene matches this person, then that is a big leap where they couldn't have that information by any other source,” St. Clair said.

It's helped convict the guilty, and in Smith's case, free an innocent man.

But he's aware his release left three women in limbo on who attacked them. He met with one of them after he got out of prison. 

“She was very angry, very hostile and she had every right to be and we talked, we exchanged information and she and I stay in touch on a regular basis now” he said.

When asked if she still believes he’s the one that harmed her, Smith said no because he proved to her that they were both victims.

Smith says the woman, now 66, has moved out of state and on with her life. Smith says she's had no contact with police since.

According to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, there have been 330 people freed so far through DNA testing in the United States.

Only about half of the actual perpetrators of those crimes have ever been identified.