Crime lab struggles to keep up with demand

Beaver County Times, Timesonline.com,
BYLINE: Kristen Doerschner
Link to Article

Aliquippa, PA

2011-03-20_INT_Crime lab struggles to keep up with demand_01
The evidence room at the Aliquippa police station is full from floor to ceiling with items from crime scenes. Aliquippa police chief Ralph Pallante is pictured with sawed-off shotguns recovered from crime scenes. Photo by SALLY MAXSON

Forensic science has become an important part of police work over the past several decades. Police often rely on forensic evidence not only to get a conviction, but to be able even to file charges in some cases.

Despite what many people see on television crime shows, getting forensic evidence test results doesn't happen within an hour, or even days in most cases. It's more likely to take weeks or months to get forensic test results.

The massive volume of evidence coming in to the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services in Greensburg, combined with the DNA lab being short-staffed, has led to a backlog of evidence in the labs, according to Deborah Calhoun, director of the Scientific Services Division of the Pennsylvania State Police.

The turnaround time for an average drug case is currently around 60 days, Calhoun said. But the current turnaround time for DNA evidence is roughly 240 days, she said.

The DNA lab has 11 new trainees who should bring the lab back up to a full complement and alleviate some of the backlog, Calhoun said.

Some disciplines have a shorter turnaround time, Calhoun said. DNA processing is much more complicated than some other types of evidence. "The length of time it takes to complete a DNA case is much, much longer than working a drug case," she said.

Beaver County Detective Anthony McClure said there are other things that can take a scientist away from the lab and increase the evidence processing time, such as testifying during trials or doing things like blood splatter-analysis, which can be a very time-consuming task and must be done at the crime scene.

GETTING TO THE LAB

Another challenge police departments face is actually getting forensic evidence to the lab.

McClure said one thing that affects how long it takes to get test results is whether or not the police are able to get evidence to the lab in a timely manner.

It takes almost an entire day to take evidence to the lab for testing, Beaver County District Attorney Berosh said. In addition to the time it takes to drive the evidence to Greensburg and drive back again, the officer has to log in with the evidence, review the evidence with someone at the lab and answer any questions the lab may have.

For smaller departments that utilize part-time officers, sending someone to the lab often means paying someone overtime so officers don't have to be taken off the street, Berosh said.

For departments with a larger police roster, getting evidence to and from the crime lab is a bit easier.

Aliquippa Police Chief Ralph Pallante said one of the city's detectives is designated as the person who takes evidence to and from the lab. Pallante said his department usually waits until there are several pieces of evidence that need to go to the lab before the detective makes a trip to Greensburg, but that he goes to the lab on a fairly regular basis.

Pallante said Aliquippa police have encountered cases in which they have had to wait before they could have a preliminary hearing because the lab results on evidence weren't back yet.

"You kind of get used to the system; it's just another spoke in the wheel," Pallante said of the lab turnaround time.

SOME CASES EXPEDITED

While the time it takes to get forensic results can take anywhere from six weeks to eight months, some cases are put on a fast track.

Berosh said certain cases that are considered very serious, such as homicides and rape cases, are expedited by the lab. He said there are many times when charges can't be filed, or the prosecution cannot proceed with a preliminary hearing, if it doesn't have forensic evidence results.

A more recent example of expedited forensic testing was in the Gregory Baker homicide trial. Berosh said his office needed ballistics evidence on the weapon to proceed with a preliminary hearing. Because the Greensburg office couldn't process it quickly enough, the weapon was sent to a state police lab in Harrisburg, where another ballistics expert was able to conduct the necessary tests and get results in time for the preliminary hearing, he said.

In that case, the expert also came to Beaver County to testify at the trial.

Berosh and McClure said the turnaround time the lab has is excellent considering the volume of evidence and the other factors that contribute to the time it takes to process the evidence.

Berosh said his biggest concern would be if the state were to cut funding for the labs. "If that happens, we're all going to pay," Berosh said, adding that the current delays are likely to become worse.

He said the cost of using private labs is very high, and forensic evidence has become so important to police work.

"Lab results can also exonerate people," Berosh said. "How many cases could remain open with questions?"

Kristen Doerschner can be reached online at .

WHAT IT IS

Here's some information about the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services crime lab located in Greensburg.

* It serves 13 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.
* It is one of seven regional forensic labs and one of only two DNA labs in the state.
* The lab received forensic evidence for 8,880 cases in 2010.
* The DNA lab processes information for about 2,000 cases each year.
* The DNA lab is responsible for the input, storage and tracking of DNA samples for roughly 24,000 convicted offenders each year.
* DNA lab has a staff of 35 people, including 15 forensic scientists and 11 trainees.
* Source: Deborah Calhoun, director of Scientific Services Division of the Pennsylvania State Police.

WHAT IT DOES

The Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Forensic Services crime lab processes a variety of forensic evidence for law enforcement. That evidence includes:

* Automated fingerprint identification
* Latent fingerprint identification
* Ballistics
* Blood-alcohol content
* Drug identification
* Bodily fluid identification
* Serology, including bloodstain pattern analysis and hair identification
* Trace evidence such as paints and fibers
* DNA processing

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