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At Embattled State Crime Lab, Limits On Evidence Set

The Hartford Courant,
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Hartford, CT

The expert panel wrestling with a huge backlog of untested DNA cases at the state crime lab has for the first time set limits on how many evidence samples the police can send to the lab.

It's an effort to try to give the lab some breathing room as it works to reduce one of the country's worst logjams of untested crime-scene evidence. The backlog of cases includes dozens of rapes and other violent crimes.

The panel, appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in September, is also working on a budget for the estimated $2 million to $3 million a year more that the lab will require for additional staffing, and a blueprint for a new management structure.

The lab, once the province of internationally known criminalist Henry C. Lee, was slammed in two federal audits last year and lost its professional accreditation. As a result, the lab lost its access to the national DNA database of convicted offenders, maintained by the FBI. Postings to the data bank, known as CODIS, is one of the most important functions of any American crime lab. Officials said that both accreditation and access to CODIS may be restored by next month.

The new guidelines represent the first written rules on evidence submissions, said Michael P. Lawlor, Malloy's chief of criminal justice policy and planning.

Until now, Lawlor said, police departments "could send in anything they wanted,'' even from the scenes of minor property crimes.

Under the new rules, the lab will accept only one or two samples from property crimes, and five samples from robberies and less serious assaults. The lab will no longer accept bullets or cartridge cases that are found somewhere, but didn't hit a person or a house – unless they are tied to an investigation.

The lab will evaluate on a case by cases basis how much evidence it accepts in homicides, sexual assaults, and other serious assaults, the guidelines say.

When surfaces are swabbed for DNA, known as "touch DNA,'' the lab will now examine "only the most relevant'' samples.

Seized guns that have to be tested to see if they're operable will now remain with the police agency until up to three weeks before trial. The computer-crimes section of the lab will no longer analyze electronic media in suicide cases and larcenies of less than $2,000.

Darien Police Chief Duane J. Lovello said he'd rather there be no limits.

"In a perfect world, there wouldn't be,'' said Lovello, who serves on the expert panel. But he said that police departments understand the situation at the forensic lab, "and we want to be part of the solution.''

He said in that context, the guidelines "are reasonable. It's a pragmatic approach to a long-term problem.''

But he cautioned that "forensics are all about establishing linkages,'' and said a stray bullet that was found on the street somewhere might have high evidentiary value.

"Of course we'd like to know what it is,'' Lawlor said of the hypothetical bullet's origins. "But we have to set priorities to get (the backlog) under control.''

Superior Court Judge Robert J. Devlin, a panel member who led the effort to come up with the guidelines, said police officers will have the leeway to deviate from the rules when circumstances warrant. He said Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, a panel member, had input into the guidelines, as did the Connecticut police chief's association.

"We're basically asking police to do some triaging of evidence. We're trying to get the lab to focus its resources on the most serious cases,'' Devlin said.

Defense attorney Karen Goodrow said she's seen efforts to streamline evidence work well in small groups of cases, and added that the limits could help police save time.

Goodrow is a member of the expert panel and the director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, which has used newly discovered DNA evidence to free several wrongly convicted defendants. She said she has sat with prosecutors and forensic scientists and gone over cases that her staff is reviewing.

"We've been able to prioritize. If a case has 50 pieces of evidence, we'll decide to examine the first five, say, in the first round, then the next five. In this way, I think the guidelines make sense. It's a wise use of resources.''

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