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DNA backlog delays cause frustration, concerns:

www.dailycomet.com
By Raymond Legendre, Staff Writer
Link to Article (1 photo)

Baton Rouge. LA

Detective Aaron Barnes demonstrates how Thibodaux Police lift fingerprints Friday inside a lab at the Thibodaux Police Station.

THIBODAUX — They are a tiny collection of human cells invisible to the naked eye.

And they helped revolutionize the way America’s criminal-justice system identifies guilt and innocence.

But the success of DNA testing over the past two decades has made it so popular among law-enforcement agencies that crime labs in many states are struggling to keep up with demand.

Louisiana is no different.

The State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge has a lengthy backlog — more than 2,000 items are waiting to be analyzed — and limited manpower, space and money to complete them. Officials there must prioritize evidence, often giving preference to the most serious felony investigations and cases set for trial.

The Crime Lab does a good job of moving fast on priority cases in which a suspect has been identified, Lafourche and Terrebonne law-enforcement officials said. But in less urgent cases, delays in DNA analysis often lead to clogged court dockets and may give unidentified suspects time to repeat their crimes.

‘FRUSTRATING EXAMPLE’

Earlier this month, Curtis Hinton of Thibodaux was charged with a rape that occurred in 2006.

It was DNA that led to his arrest. The evidence, collected from the alleged victim, was submitted for testing more than two and a half years ago. The woman didn’t know her attacker, and police had no other leads. The DNA, matched to a sample of Hinton’s already on file, proved to be the key in this case.

But the years-long delay and news that local authorities are trying to determine if Hinton committed other rapes during the time the DNA evidence sat in the lab, has some questioning why it took so long.

The Hinton case is a “frustrating example” of how “overburdened” Crime Lab employees are, Lafourche Sheriff Craig Webre said.

Untested evidence nullifies the potential impact of DNA, forensic-science professors and victims-rights advocates agreed. And testing delays put the public at risk against repeat offenders and increase the potential that innocent people are in prison for crimes they did not commit.

‘PRECISE SCIENCE’

In 1985, English geneticist Alec Jeffreys introduced the concept of DNA, proposing that a group of cells formed around a nucleus hold evidence of a person’s genetic makeup.

Jeffreys’ discovery proved a major breakthrough for law-enforcement agencies, which focused on collecting DNA samples from blood, saliva, hair, skin tissue and semen to identify suspects at crime scenes.

In DNA, they had a silent, genetic witness whose testimony would not change due to memory lapses or outside pressures.

“It doesn’t answer every question, but it’s very powerful,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the Department of Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

As a testament to its impact, police started submitting DNA in crimes where they had already developed a strong case.

“Even though we might have an eyewitness and a confession, which is sufficient for conviction, the prudent thing is to submit the DNA,” Webre said. DNA evidence ensures a conviction will have a strong shelf-life, even if eyewitnesses die or investigating deputies retire, he said.

“You’re dealing with the human factor,” Thibodaux Police Chief Craig Melancon said, in regards to eyewitness and suspect statements. “That means mistakes can be made. DNA has proven to be a very precise science.”

BACKLOG CLOGS DOCKETS

When the State Police Crime Lab opened in 2001, analysts already had a significant amount of old, unsolved cases waiting for them, State Police Sgt. Markus Smith said.

Though there are other forensic-analysis programs in the state, the State Police Crime Lab acts as the primary tester for most police agencies. Law enforcement’s added emphasis on DNA during the past decade has increased the evidence submitted, but the number of analysts has not followed suit in most cases.

In 2008, the State Police Crime Lab received 1,040 requests for DNA analysis, Smith said. As of April, 2,000 cases awaited testing.

Each piece can take a few hours or a few days to yield results and, until recently, there were just 12 analysts available to do the work.

Delays are bound to occur, given budget and staffing constraints, authorities said.

But delayed results mean delayed prosecutions in many instances, said Carlos Lazarus, Terrebonne’s First Assistant District Attorney. For instance, in pre-DNA-testing days, a rape case might have gone to trial six months after charges were filed. It now takes a year or more.

“We work around it and do the best we can,” he said. “It does at times clog up dockets and makes cases not go to trial as quickly as we like.”

‘IT DID ITS PURPOSE’

On occasion, the State Police Crime Lab sends DNA evidence to private labs to combat the hefty workload.

One such case involved a sample received from the Lafourche Sheriff’s Office in January 2007.

The alleged crime involved a man accused of picking up a hitchhiker on a north Lafourche road, then raping her in the woods.

There was no suspect, and the case eventually went “cold.”

In July, State Police got evidence from FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, linking Curtis Hinton, 55, a former convict and registered sex offender, to the rape. A subsequent DNA swab, taken after authorities re-interviewed the alleged victim and secured a warrant, matched Hinton and led to his Sept. 1 arrest.

“It did its purpose: identify the suspect and get the rapist off the streets,” Smith said of CODIS, which collects information on violent offenders. “Granted, it looks like it took a while, but if you don’t have a suspect from the beginning, even to make an arrest at all is outstanding.”

Sexual-assault cases in which the victim does not know her attacker generally take a long time to investigate because they require analysis of different types of evidence, and suspects are hard to find. The resulting paperwork is also time consuming, Kobilinsky.

But victim advocates say the wheels of justice are turning too slowly.

“It’s disturbing to them not only because they don’t feel safe because the rapist is still out there, but because the rapist has not been held accountable,” said Judy Benitez, executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault.

A NATIONAL PROBLEM

A Department of Justice study estimates that 400,000 rape kits went untested in 2001. At least some of those contain semen, hair or fingernails that could confirm the suspect’s presence at the crime scene, said Sarah Tofte, a researcher on sexual violence for Human Rights Watch in New York.

The issue is particularly important because studies show sexual offenders have a high rate of recidivism, or recurring behavior.

“Why wait until you have horrific circumstances where you end up with more rape victims?” Tofte said. “You end up with rape cases that could have been prevented if law enforcement would have acted a little more quickly and thoroughly.”

The reverse is also true: a DNA backlog can pave the way for unwarranted convictions.

To date, 242 prisoners were freed after DNA evidence proved they were not guilty, said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Innocence Project, a national litigation and public-policy organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

Among that number is the late Clyde Charles, a Houma fisherman who spent 17 years in Angola State Penitentiary for a rape his brother was convicted of committing. Innocence Project worked to free Charles, but Ferrero cautioned the reason he remained in jail was not DNA backlog, but rather prosecutors tried to prevent his attorneys from using DNA evidence to prove his innocence.

‘ALWAYS BE A BACKLOG’

Steps are being taken to reduce the backlog. The state government recently provided the State Police Crime Lab with money to hire nine new analysts, Smith said. They are currently being trained.

“There will always be a backlog, it’s just a matter of how great the backlog is,” Smith said.

Webre and Melancon each said they are interested in starting a regional lab staffed with two analysts. The lab would function like the drug-analysis lab the region’s law-enforcement agencies already share.

There is also hope that CODIS, which helped apprehend Hinton, will help solve more sexual-assault cases as it is updated, Webre said.

DNA evidence is a valuable tool, he said, but the speed “is obviously not at the level we would like it to be.”

National experts agree.

“Having a backlog doesn’t help anybody, certainly not future victims,” Kobilinsky said. “These guys are running around free committing crimes over and over ... this is life and death. We need to drop the backlogs.”

Staff Writer Raymond Legendre can be reached at 448-7617 or
.
Follow him on
Twitter @cometcrime.

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