Crime labs morbid state
There is a rapist on the loose somewhere on the Cape, and Michael O’Keefe, first assistant district attorney for Cape Cod and the islands, says he’s pretty sure he knows who it is. But nearly a year after a woman was attacked and sexually assaulted in a home invasion, the prosecutor has been unable to seek an arrest warrant. That’s because the state crime lab, bogged down in a backlog of cases, has yet to complete tests that would tell whether the suspect’s DNA matches semen collected from the victim.
faces own fight for funding.
The crime lab overload is just one snag in a state forensic services system that’s barely above paralysis. Whether it’s DNA testing, the processing of drug samples, or the autopsies that reveal whether a death was mishap or murder, the scientific bench work that can be as crucial to crime fighting as the cop on the beat is in dire straits.
“The best thing you can say about forensic services right now in Massachusetts is that it is substandard,” says Essex County District Attorney Kevin Burke. “Maybe the most accurate thing you can is that it is scandalous.”
Because of staffing shortages, in roughly one quarter of all cases the medical examiner’s office performs only external examinations of bodies, rather than full autopsies. As a consequence, the report said, “there is a significant risk that decisions will be made to not investigate in depth or conduct an autopsy when one may in fact be indicated.”
Conditions at the some of the medical examiner’s satellite offices seem downright gruesome–even for places whose business is dissecting corpses. The report said the Pocasset facility that serves Cape Cod is plagued by falling ceiling tiles, asbestos, and an inadequate drainage system that requires body fluids from autopsies to be gathered in a five-gallon bucket. The report concluded that the facility would “surely fail an inspection by OSHA or any Department of Health” and “would no doubt be closed immediately.” At the Holyoke facility, the report cited “instances in which there have been bodies that have had to be stored in an unrefrigerated condition until cooler space was available.”
“We’ve done what we can,” says Dr. Richard Evans, the state’s chief medical examiner, who says he has pleaded for years for increased funding to no avail. With everything from school financing to health care making claims on state dollars, Evans says he’s come to the conclusion that legislators are “more honed in on helping the living. In other words, I don’t have a constituency out there.”
Except that the living have something very much at stake. Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley says an average of one drug case per month is dismissed at each of the 12 district courts her office works in simply because prosecutors have been unable to obtain lab reports confirming the nature of the seized contraband. And because of the state lab’s rationing of DNA testing, Coakley has been forced to send samples to private labs and foot the bill out of her own strained budget. She spent $35,000 on DNA testing last year, which amounts, she says, to “a salary for a new starting assistant district attorney I can’t hire.”
And then there is the possibility of crimes that prosecutors never discovered because the medical examiner settled for a look–or “view,” in forensic pathology parlance–rather than an autopsy. Coakley’s biggest fear: “that someone’s getting away with murder.”
The medical examiner’s $3.2 million annual budget translates to spending of 56 cents per capita, a quarter the national average of $2 per capita. The state-commissioned report urged an immediate increase in the medical examiner’s budget of $1 million to $1.5 million. The Swift administration has called for a $500,000 increase. The House went along with the boost in its budget for the coming year, but the Senate did not concur, leaving the new funding in doubt.
Massachusetts is not alone in its forensic fiasco. A recent Department of Justice report found that 81 percent of all public DNA testing labs are suffering from delays. And with DNA evidence certain to play a much greater role in criminal prosecution over the coming years, the need for testing will only increase.
But he says that luck can’t last forever. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”