DNA test cause headaches for the states crime lab
Even crime has its growth sector, and in the Bay State, it’s burglary. The only violent or property crime category to increase between 2002 and 2003, burglary rose 1.3 percent, according to the latest State Police figures.
Trace DNA evidence from blood, perspiration, or saliva can help to solve those crimes, as well as more serious ones, according to a 2004 National Institute of Justice study. In Florida and New York, where forensic investigators have, thanks to NIJ funding, collected biological evidence in high-volume property crimes as well as in violent ones, samples from murder scenes have often matched with biological evidence from burglaries in an FBI-distributed DNA database.
In New York, several “pattern” burglaries were uncovered this way, and in three cases burglars’ DNA was linked to violent crimes such as sexual assault and robbery. The state of Florida reported that 52 percent of DNA matches in violent crimes identified individuals also in the database for burglary or drug convictions. In Miami-Dade County, bloodstains left at four burglary scenes led to a previously convicted burglar.
“By solving one [burglary] you may solve six,” says Walsh. “If we could have the luxury of DNA evidence in those types of cases, it would be a godsend for us.”
But a luxury is what it would be, he adds. “I can’t get the state lab to do DNA evidence on murder cases, so forget about property crimes,” says Walsh.
Prosecutors have complained about delays in DNA testing at the State Police Crime Laboratory in Sudbury for years now, and that’s just for major crimes of violence, such as murder and rape. (See “Crime labs failing to make the case,” CW, Summer ’02.) Funding shortfalls, short staffing, and inadequate laboratory facilities continue to hamper timely DNA testing, say public safety officials.
Change is underway, but not necessarily fast enough to keep pace with the expanding use of DNA testing in law enforcement. The state reorganized the state crime lab, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and certain other law enforcement departments into a single agency in 2004, two years after a National Forensic Science Technology Center study described the state’s forensic services as “woefully inadequate.”
At a recent Beacon Hill hearing, Dr. Carl Selavka, the crime lab’s director, testified that hundreds of cases go unattended due to the lab’s inability to keep up with the volume. State officials acknowledge that analyzing biological evidence can take up to a year, while district attorneys insist that samples languish in the lab for as long as 18 months.
Case backlogs, especially in DNA testing, challenge crime labs nationwide. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study of the country’s 50 largest publicly funded forensic crime labs in 2002 found 93,000 backlogged cases, including about 270,000 pending requests for forensic services at the year’s end, more than twice as many as at the beginning of the year. (A single criminal case may include multiple requests for forensic services.) Researchers discovered for every completed DNA analysis request, another estimated 1.7 were pending.
In Massachusetts, 12 chemists currently process DNA evidence. To meet the national average processing time of 30 days, the state would have to employ about 80 chemists, according to the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
The crime lab hopes to bring up to 10 new DNA scientists on board next year, according to Major Mark Delaney, commander of the Department of Forensic Services for the State Police. Delaney says the crime lab also wants to expand into two satellite facilities, an additional location in North Sudbury and one in Devens, the former Army base. In addition, designs for a new facility will move forward if the Legislature approves the Romney administration’s $125 million bond request.
Under a federal grant, the crime lab has dipped its toe into this new application of DNA analysis, according to Joanne Sgueglia, technical manager for forensic biology. Last year, the crime lab was able to evaluate evidence from 75 crimes out of 485 breaking-and-entering cases submitted, yielding DNA samples in 27 instances. Those cases were outsourced to a private Maryland facility for analysis. Since 2002, DNA analysis of breaking-and-entering scenes has yielded 10 matches in the federal database.
Without funds from Washington, the crime lab would probably not be able to analyze minor crime scene evidence at current staffing levels, says Delaney. But, with further legislative support and funding, Delaney hopes to have 80 to 90 DNA chemists in five to six years. With a full roster of scientists, he says, the state lab will be able to process evidence from all crimes, including minor ones.
“Twenty-first-century prosecutions should be able to use 21st-century science to get a conviction,” says Sen. Jarrett Barrios, the Cambridge Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. (Barrios is also a candidate for Middlesex County district attorney.) “If you’ve got the evidence to nab [burglars] on the burglary, but for the fact that you haven’t processed the DNA, it’s a tremendous loss to all of us.”
But James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, worries that a bigger workload could mean more problems at the crime lab, including greater possibility of error. “If you expand to a wider range of offenses, the workloads are going to increase substantially, particularly if you [include] property offenses, because they are much more frequent,” says Fox. “My personal preference would be to get our act straight with major crimes before we expand.”That walk-before-you-run advice will have to contend with growing enthusiasm for this new application of forensic science. Dr. Cecelia Crouse, supervisor of the serology/ DNA section of the sheriff’s office in Palm Beach County, Florida, recently conducted a survey of county investigators and found that police believe minor crime scene DNA analysis is “absolutely” worth the effort.
“They just really feel that if you get these people when they are committing these crimes at a minor level, the major crimes are going to go down,” says Crouse.
Gabrielle Gurley is a freelance writer in Arlington.