BYU professor: Skin cells can help prosecute groping sexual assault cases

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PROVO — Skin cells left behind by perpetrators of groping sexual assaults can be used to build DNA profiles and successfully prosecute cases, according to recently published research from a BYU nursing professor.

"We want everyone to know about this breakthrough," said Dr. Julie Valentine of BYU's College of Nursing.

Valentine, who is also a certified sexual assault examiner, had her research published in the latest edition of the Journal of Forensic Nursing.

"What is new about this is we have really found that we can utilize touch DNA in sexual assault cases and that's a big deal," she said. "That really opens up a whole avenue for achieving more justice in these cases."

After a groping attack, Valentine said many police and medical workers don't collect the touch DNA evidence from the survivor's skin and clothing because they are not aware of the science. She's now on a mission to change that.

"Law enforcement (has) been really excited about this tool," Valentine said. "They want to see justice in these cases."

A breakthrough case in Utah from a decade ago got her invested in the science. In that 2011 case, a young woman was violently groped.

"The nurse knew about touch DNA in theory but what we didn't know is, in practice, would it actually work?" Valentine said.

The nurse collected the skin cells which allowed the lab to develop the DNA profile of the attacker which led to a successful prosecution of the crime.

"Without that DNA, that case would not have moved forward," Valentine said.


Since then, Valentine has helped launch a campaign to incorporate touch DNA collection in Utah's sexual assault examination form. Her efforts are supported by the National Institute of Justice.

She and her team have given more than 100 training sessions to help law enforcement and nurses learn about how to collect touch DNA.

The standardized process developed in Utah is now being used across the country and Valentine said she also receives international inquiries.

"We are stopping, hopefully, further crimes from occurring," Valentine said.

Most important, she said, is for survivors of attacks to know about the process and to make sure to get the evidence collected.

"We want to help place them on a pathway to healing," Valentine said. "We want to provide resources and we want to collect evidence that might help lead to justice."

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