Technological advances in DNA testing played a role in Athens rape arrest

LONDON, OH (WCMH) — Technological advances in crime scene testing helped make an arrest in at least three sexual assaults in Athens.

NBC4 went to the state crime lab in London to talk about how lab-testing DNA played a role.

It can be called touch DNA, and officials said those microscopic skin cells tested were instrumental in the arrest of a suspect being referred to as the Athens serial rapist.

“But for that decision on the moment, very quickly we would not have had the match between the 2006 and 2013 cases,” Keller Blackburn, Athens County Prosecutor, said after Lawson was arraigned.

Officials said touch DNA was one of several tools used in connecting 26-yr-old Shawn Lawson Jr. to these cases. Lawson is being held on a $3 million bond after appearing in Athens County Court Tuesday. He has been charged with three sexual assaults.

Because Lawson’s case is still active, no one at the crime lab could discuss the specifics of his case. But, one Forensic Scientist there said advancements in DNA testing are solving cases.

“We are obtaining better results from fewer skin cells,” said Logan Schepeler, a forensic scientist in the DNA section at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He said DNA can be tested from blood, saliva, semen and other body fluids–and it can also be tested from skin cells.

Touch DNA means just what it is called. A suspect like Lawson allegedly touches a victim’s skin, clothes or another object and leaves behind skin cells. The amount of skin cells left behind can depend on length of time, pressure applied and or the surface makeup of the area touched.

“Police agencies have been educated more on touch DNA, how it works and how potentially successful it can be, therefore we are seeing more cases where the only samples we have are touch DNA samples,” said Schepeler.

In Lawson’s case, officials said Athens Police Lt. Jeff McCall gets credit for gathering touch DNA during the 2015 rape case.

“I believe the Athens community should recognize Lt. McCall for his investigative efforts,” said Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle.

Phenotyping also helped identify a suspect, where a picture or composite was made by using DNA which can identify eye, hair color and possibly facial features.

“Look at that composite or that actual picture and it turns out it looks very much like the defendant in this case,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said at the press conference shortly after Lawson appeared in court.

Authorities say they are working to see if Lawson could be connected to other sexual assaults, some of that work is by forensic scientists in the DNA section using cutting-edge crime testing techniques.

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