Stateline Story

Crime Solving Tool Stymied By Lab Backlogs

  • May 23, 2002
  • By Tiffany Danitz

In the small Cape Cod town of Truro last January, 46-year-old fashion writer Christa Worthington was stabbed to death in her house, shattering the tranquility that winter brings to the Cape.

Police have yet to find her killer, but the list of characters in Worthington's life, including two ex-lovers, the wife of one of her lovers and a drug-addicted prostitute, create an atmosphere rich with suspicion.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) samples could help the police and the local District Attorney's Office identify or clear a suspect. But four months after the crime, a backlog at the Massachusetts DNA lab has delayed testing on the samples from Worthington's body and house. As a result, the police spent time chasing leads that went nowhere, according to Barnstable's First Assistant District Attorney Michael O'Keefe.

Budget cuts are to blame, according to a report by the National Forensic Science Technology Center at Florida State University.

The report found that Massachusetts' forensic labs were forced to cut corners and deny police requests because of backlogs caused by budgetary woes and recommended the state immediately inject $1.5 million into the forensic testing system.

"It (the state lab) is under-funded and as a result it has difficulty delivering, in a timely fashion, the results of DNA and other forensic testing," O'Keefe said.

Massachusetts is not alone.

A recent Department of Justice (DOJ) study found that 81 percent of state labs have backlogs totaling 16,081 casework samples and 265,329 offender samples. Seventy percent of US prosecutors say the delays are the biggest problem with using DNA evidence to solve crimes, the DOJ study said.

"State labs have so many pressures coming down on them and their backlog is so significant they are performing triage right now going from court date to court date," said Lisa Hurst, a lobbyist at Smith, Alling, Lane, a firm that has followed this issue for the past four years.

At the same time that labs are bogged down in sampling and analyzing DNA, legislators are passing laws expanding the type of crimes that require samples of DNA from offenders.

Twenty states require that everyone convicted of a felony provide samples for a database, up from just seven states two years ago. This legislative session, 26 states considered bills that affect DNA collection, but few are providing enough money for labs to meet the new demands.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of samples from crime scenes and from offenders that are awaiting analysis in evidence storage lockers and forensic laboratories across the country. The longer this evidence goes unanalyzed, the longer the crimes to which it relates go unsolved," said Sarah Hart, director of the National Institute of Justice, a wing of the Department of Justice, at a Congressional hearing on May 14.

There are some efforts underway to help state DNA programs.

Congress is considering a package of bills that would aid states in collecting offender DNA as well as address the backlogs, Hurst said. "Congress is going to lead the way in getting states to look at funding for labs," she said.

The National Institute of Justice will be awarding grants totaling $25 million to the states to analyze crime scene evidence beginning in June, according to a DOJ spokesman. The DNA Backlog Reduction Program of 2001, a separate grant, also helps states by providing funds over three years for DNA analysis.

Officials pointed to Virginia as one state where the DNA testing program has had success.

Virginia was the first state to build a DNA database in 1998 and initially the state took samples from convicted sex offenders. Over the years the database has expanded to include all felons.

"When you look at the Virginia data it becomes real obvious what you should do. In April they matched 68 crimes to suspects in cases in which they did not have a suspect and would have gone unsolved if they had not been collecting DNA," Hurst said.

The key to Virginia's success has been the commitment of several governors and the legislature, according to Robin Porter, the deputy director at the Virginia Division of Forensic Sciences.

"We (Virginia) have enjoyed tremendous support from the various legislatures and governors - and it has been bipartisan support. Most states will tell you it takes that kind of support to make that kind of program successful because these are the people that give you the staff and the money," he said.

He said that state legislators need to understand that if they are going to have a successful DNA program it is going to take time, money for people, (office) space and equipment.

"These types of programs don't just happen overnight," he said.

Tags: Justice