Stateline Story

Crime Lab Backlogs Extend Beyond DNA

  • August 28, 2006
  • By John Gramlich
State and federal lawmakers are trying to reduce backlogs in unanalyzed DNA evidence even as more common forms of forensic data are being neglected, crime lab directors say.

Analysis of DNA evidence - genetic markers found in strands of hair, saliva, semen and other body products - accounts for only about 5 percent of most crime labs' work, said Earl Wells, director of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD) and head of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division's forensic services unit. Lab scientists spend much more time analyzing other forensic evidence such as controlled substances and fingerprints, he said.

State and federal legislators have focused their attention on the elimination of DNA backlogs because DNA "happens to be the hot topic today," Wells said.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in February unveiled a plan to slash his state's DNA backlog while in Wisconsin, the same problem has become an issue in the state's increasingly bitter race for attorney general. President Bush also has made eliminating DNA backlogs a high priority as part of a five-year, $1 billion DNA Initiative .

At the same time, non-DNA evidence sits unexamined in most of the nation's estimated 350 publicly funded crime labs, Wells said - slowing down all forensic analysis. More than 200 of those labs are state or regional facilities.

"If you stress [DNA] above all else, everything else suffers," Wells told Stateline.org .

Nationwide, crime labs had a median backlog of 646 requests - including DNA - at the end of 2002, according to a census by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The study, scheduled to be updated later this year, does not track backlogs in specific kinds of forensic evidence.

Criminal justice experts warn crime lab backlogs are costly, keeping prisoners behind bars for months before their cases come up for trial and putting pressure on labs to work more quickly - increasing the likelihood of errors.

Blagojevich's plan increases funding so crime labs can do DNA analysis in-house instead of outsourcing work and establishes an institute to train more specialists. While Blagojevich's program has helped trim the amount of unexamined DNA evidence, "backlogs in other areas have increased," said Larry Trent, director of the Illinois State Police.

In Wisconsin, the state's DNA backlog has more than doubled in two years and has become a key issue in the attorney general's race ahead of a Sept. 12 primary. Incumbent Peg Lautenschlager (D) has weathered attacks from Republican challengers, including one opponent's allegation that the DNA backlog could have contributed to the 2004 murder of a state Department of Justice agent.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's backlog of other forensic evidence awaiting analysis, such as fingerprints, still numbers in the thousands, according to Michael Bauer of the state Department of Justice - though he said it has been trimmed in recent years.

Federally, funds provided under the DNA Initiative can only be used for DNA-related work. Funding for other forms of forensic analysis pales in comparison. In September, the Department of Justice announced $84 million in funds under the DNA Initiative and $13.6 million for other areas of forensic science.

DNA evidence is an "excellent tool," but lab directors "want all forensic science funded, and not just DNA," said Wells, head of the association of crime lab directors.

Despite additional funding to eliminate DNA backlogs, newly enacted federal and state laws could jeopardize further progress in reducing the number of unanalyzed DNA samples, according to Wells.

Kansas, New Mexico and the federal government this year joined five other states (California, Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota and Virginia) in authorizing the collection of DNA samples from those arrested for - but not yet convicted of - certain crimes. If more states pass similar legislation, the influx of new samples could overwhelm already strained labs, Wells said.

"If they all do arrestee sampling, it's going to be an avalanche of new casework," he said.

Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project , a New York-based legal clinic, said "a higher priority should be placed on quality than quantity."

Crime lab errors have occurred in several states, including Texas, where the Houston Police Department's lab was found in 2002 to have badly undertrained staff and a leaky roof that could have contaminated evidence.

A comprehensive review of the lab found that mishandled evidence led to the wrongful incarceration of two men, one of whom spent 17 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit. The investigation forced the lab's DNA unit to close for more than three years, until last month.