Hartford Courant (Connecticut)
BYLINE: DAVE ALTIMARI and MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
New Haven, CT
AS CRIME LAB STRUGGLES WITH BACKLOG, STATE USES
FEDERAL FUNDS IN EFFORT TO CATCH UP
For nearly two years, the DNA samples connecting Ronald Brown to the rape of a teenage girl sat in the state police forensic laboratory while the convicted murderer roamed the streets of New Haven.
Brown had been released from prison in November 2006 - but not before giving authorities a DNA sample that was supposed to be analyzed by the state lab and logged into a national DNA databank.
Six months later, Brown's DNA sample was still on the shelf, with thousands of other untested samples, when a 15-year-old girl was dragged behind a house on Chapel Street in New Haven and sexually assaulted. A rape kit, including DNA evidence from the girl's attacker, was taken the day after the May 4, 2007, assault and sent by New Haven police detectives to the state police lab in August 2007.
But two more years would pass before scientists in the lab analyzed Brown's DNA sample - and found that it matched the DNA in the New Haven rape. Brown was arrested last week, 32 months after the crime, and charged with first-degree sexual assault and kidnapping.
DNA analysis has revolutionized crime-solving. But heavy backlogs have become the norm at Connecticut's once-renowned forensic laboratory, leading to long delays that critics say put the public at risk.
The laboratory now has a backlog of 10,600 DNA samples from convicted offenders that haven't been processed and entered into the databank.
On Friday, two days after The Courant submitted questions to the state police about problems at the laboratory, Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that the lab has made "significant progress" in eliminating that DNA backlog by hiring personnel using federal stimulus money.The governor said the lab was able to enter 1,900 samples into the databank in January, resulting in six "hits" on unsolved sexual assault cases going back as long as 22 years. Rell announced a goal to eliminate the backlog by the end of the year so that "victims can get the justice they deserve."
But an internal memorandum from the lab director obtained by The Courant details how evidence from recent violent crimes, including homicides, sits untouched in the state laboratory for up to a year.
The November 2009 memo, written to State Police Commissioner John A. Danaher III, says:
*Police departments submitting DNA evidence from a homicide scene can expect to wait as long as nine months for processing, unless it is a high-profile case such as the killing of Yale student Annie Le. Evidence from 35 homicides has not yet been processed.
*Latent fingerprints found at a crime scene can take a year for the laboratory to analyze against a national database.
*Rape kits with potential DNA evidence may be shelved for up to a year. The state has 110 rape kits that have not been analyzed.
*Firearms submitted for identification can take from nine months to a year to review.
In the memo, Director Kenneth Zercie blames the backlog on staff cuts. He wrote that in July 2009, for example, the lab had five examiners who handled fingerprints and documents; now it has one.
And with limited staff, Zercie says, the delays cited in the memo are actually optimistic projections.
"These time estimates are best-case scenarios," Zercie wrote. "With interruptions of emergency case examinations, high profile investigations, cold case resubmissions and court testimony requirements, the entire staff of the Division of Scientific Services is stretched in many directions."
State Rep. Michael Lawlor, a former prosecutor, said he was shocked to see how long evidence in pending cases sits in the laboratory.
"The end result is if you are a police chief or cop you could wait for as much as a year for DNA results. That's a pretty serious problem that undermines what law enforcement does," Lawlor said.
Lawlor said working on eliminating the DNA backlog is different from solving active cases.
"They are not saying we are throwing people at solving crimes but just that we are throwing people at eliminating a backlog," Lawlor said. "Why hasn't anybody been told there is a long delay in cases? Why does it take the leak of a memo for people to find out there's a serious problem?"
Many law enforcement personnel, whether police detectives or prosecutors, are reluctant to speak on the record about the lab's problems for fear of alienating lab employees.
"We have a homicide case with DNA evidence that we've been waiting almost a year for them to process and they always tell us: 'Bring us a suspect and we'll do it right away.' But how do we know our suspect isn't just sitting in the databank waiting to be found if we could just get the DNA done?" said a detective from a mid-size department who didn't want to be identified.
The lab's reputation took a hit in November when The Courant reported that a DNA sample believed for years to belong to the killer of Yale student Suzanne Jovin was actually the DNA of a now-retired lab technician.
Even before that revelation, Thomas and Donna Jovin took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the lab in a letter to Rell, saying that "shortcomings" at the forensic laboratory are prohibiting detectives investigating their daughter's slaying from applying cutting edge techniques to the case. "This facility, once regarded as a leading forensic unit in the country, is suffering from understaffing and inadequate funding. As a consequence, the unit is struggling to satisfy the needs of ongoing and emerging investigations, not to speak of 'cold cases' such as the murder of our daughter," the Jovins wrote.
Lawlor said the state budget crisis and early retirements have taken a toll on the lab's effectiveness. Many former lab workers have joined their former boss, Henry Lee, at the University of New Haven.
Danaher said state police officials are aware of the DNA backlog, which was as high as 35,000 samples in recent years. He said the state has set a goal to process 1,000 samples a month from the backlog until it is eliminated. To do that, the state is using federal funds, including about $2 million in stimulus money, to pay for 11 lab technicians. He said the recent matches illustrate the value of the lab's work.
"The new hits just show why it is so important to clear the convicted offender DNA backlog," Danaher said. "Once we eliminate that, we can go after the pending cases with more people."
Danaher acknowledged there is some frustration among law enforcement in the state with the delays in getting forensic evidence processed.
"Everybody wants their case done right away but when you are getting 150 new cases a month plus about a 1,000 convicted offender samples a month it is hard to get to everything," Danaher said.
He said the lab has to prioritize cases. In the Annie Le killing, for example, authorities collected hundreds of pieces of evidence and the lab worked around the clock to do the DNA tests that allowed police to charge Raymond Clark with murder.
"There were a lot of bodies from the lab that worked a lot of hours on the Annie Le case and they are still working a lot of hours on that case right now," Danaher said. "Every time a priority case comes in, other cases get pushed back."
In Ronald Brown's case, Danaher acknowledged that the backlog of samples from convicted felons led to a long delay in analyzing his DNA. He said the state had used a federal government contractor to keep up with inmate samples, but fell behind after the contract was canceled when the company ran into quality-control problems.
It took the lab about six months to process the rape kit. But Brown's DNA sample was not processed until Jan. 29, 2009 - more than two years after it was received. Lab officials realized they had a match in April 2009.
Advocates say it is important to reduce backlogs in analyzing offender DNA samples. But long delays in processing crime-scene evidence, particularly from sexual assaults, are even more distressing, said Scott Berkowitz, founder of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has pressed for faster analysis of crime-scene evidence.
"It's hard to explain to a victim: The crime's happened, we have the evidence, but we're not going to look at the evidence," Berkowitz said.
"It's a very difficult thing for the victim to go through. It can take hours to have all the evidence collected, to have body parts photographed, to have hair and fibers and blood drawn," he said. "So those who put themselves up to it and go through this long process, we owe them better."
Backlogs have plagued state forensic labs for decades. But with a boost from federal Department of Justice funds, several have worked to whittle away at those buildups.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley inherited a backlog of 24,000 DNA samples when he took office in 2007.
Within a year, he said, the backlog was gone, resulting in a sixfold increase in the rate at which authorities found matches between crime-scene evidence and the DNA database.
More than 20 years ago, Virginia had 160,000 blood samples awaiting analysis. Since then, that state's DNA database has grown from about 26,000 samples to more than 300,000, and the state now averages about 700 hits a year against the database, according to state records.
Arkansas officials raised court fees in 2005, pumping millions of new dollars into state labs and nearly eliminating a 16,000-case backlog. And several other states with populations larger than Connecticut's have backlogs no larger than a few thousand cases.
Berkowitz said failing to analyze DNA samples, particularly in sexual-assault cases, puts the public at risk.
"Rapists tend to be serial criminals. They tend to commit a lot of attacks before they're found. And because most cases never get reported to the police, the odds of catching them are even lower," he said. "But in a case that actually is reported to police and the evidence is collected, it's crazy to leave them on the streets."
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