New York Times article Oct. 26, 2008:
LOS ANGELES — Local and state law enforcement agencies have made uneven progress in reducing a nationwide backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis over the past four years, according to reports filed by more than 100 agencies with the National Institute of Justice.
The patchy results came despite stepped-up efforts by the federal government, including nearly $500 million in grants since 2004, to help crime laboratories reduce the backlog.
Victims’ rights groups and some law enforcement officials say the untested evidence, much of it stemming from sexual assault crimes, leaves open the possibility that thousands of criminal offenders have gone unpunished or are on the loose and committing new crimes.
“That’s always a concern,” said Sharon Papa, an assistant chief in the Los Angeles Police Department, “because, unfortunately, oftentimes rape is a serial crime.”
The problem seems most severe here in Los Angeles, where the Police Department has the largest known backlog, about 7,000 cases, including many with rape kits from sexual assaults.
The backlog comprises a mix of open cases and solved cases awaiting analysis and entry of DNA into state and national databases.
An audit released Monday by the Los Angeles city comptroller found that 217 backlogged cases here involved sexual assaults so old the 10-year statute of limitations had lapsed. The audit did not determine how many, if any, of those cases might have been prosecuted based on other evidence. The federal government has not quantified the country’s overall DNA evidence backlog since 2003, when it stood at 542,000 cases, but a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied the backlog, Sarah Tofte, estimates that it exceeds 400,000.
“People just assumed that we were testing every kit,” Chief Papa said, “and we were not.”
About 95 percent of state and local criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, often before DNA analyses are completed. The police and prosecutors rely on confessions, witness testimony and physical evidence like fingerprints and ballistics.
Still, DNA remains the most sophisticated and reliable physical evidence, especially in cases with no named suspects or promising investigative leads.
Two weeks ago, President Bush signed a bill that includes an additional $1.6 billion over six years intended to speed DNA analyses by hiring temporary crime lab workers, providing overtime pay and renovating crime labs.
But many crime labs are disqualified from receiving more money because they have failed to spend previous financing in a timely manner. A report prepared for Representative Howard L. Berman, a Democrat representing a district in Los Angeles, found that the Police Department had spent less than half of the $4.4 million in federal money it received from 2004 to 2008. Los Angeles police officials said that they had spent or committed all but one-third of that money but that they had not properly recorded some expenditures.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spent less than half of its $4.9 million in grants, the report said. Law enforcement agencies blame several factors for the DNA backlogs, including restrictions on how the federal money can be spent, local staff shortages, bureaucratic delays and planning problems. Some agencies have also seen the demand for new DNA analyses outpace efforts to clear old cases, criminalists said.
Pete Marone, chairman of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations and director of the Virginia state crime lab, said staffing levels at crime labs had not kept pace with technological advances in DNA analysis.
“Police are starting to send us new work that we couldn’t have done before,” Mr. Marone said. “We can do ‘touch’ evidence now, utilizing DNA analysis to see whether a defendant even touched a weapon. We can get DNA evidence from steering wheels. We can go into a room and find drugs on the floor and we’ll be able to analyze those drugs to determine which hand threw them down on the floor.”
Criminalists said that other kinds of evidence occupied much of their time. Many crime labs facing hundreds of backlogged DNA cases have even more shelved fingerprint, serology, ballistics and drug evidence that needs to be tested.
“DNA really accounts for just 10 percent of the caseload in crime labs around the country,” Mr. Marone said. “The majority of our work is analyzing drugs.”
Processing of a DNA evidence sample takes about a week, said Larry Blanton, a criminologist for the Los Angeles Police Department.
After a sexual assault, the police try to collect biological material — blood, semen, saliva — from the victim and the crime scene. If DNA is found, a chemical process creates billions of copies. A machine then produces a profile of 13 unique markers, which are entered into state and national databases for matches. Each DNA sample costs about $1,500 to analyze, criminalists said.
About a quarter of the 105 local and state law enforcement agencies that received federal money to reduce their DNA backlogs beginning in 2004, when Congress first authorized the spending, were granted less money this year because they had failed to meet spending goals, according to the report prepared for Mr. Berman. In progress reports filed in January with the National Institute of Justice, about 40 of 82 agencies said their DNA case backlogs had increased or remained constant during the previous six months.
“Many places have not even counted their backlogs,” said Ms. Tofte, the researcher with Human Rights Watch.
In January, the Denver Police Department reported that it had used federal funds to process 13 cases last year, including eight rape kits, out of 934 backlogged cases. The Miami-Dade Police Department failed to spend any of the $200,000 it requested in 2007 to cut its DNA backlog, whose size was not reported to the federal government.
The West Virginia State Police reported that its DNA case backlog had grown to 697 cases by Dec. 31, 2007, from 560 cases in July 2007, despite receiving about $230,000 in federal money.
“Our backlog at its peak was around 730, and now we have about a 650-case backlog,” said Lt. Brent Myers, head of the state’s DNA analysis unit. “We haven’t been able to hire temporary employees as we would have liked, so that’s why it’s taken longer to spend that money.”
The federal grants can be used to outsource DNA testing or to hire temporary employees, but not permanent staff members.
Some police departments have done better. In New York City, a backlog of more than 17,000 DNA samples from sexual assault and homicide cases from 2001 to 2004 was brought under control when the Police Department hired additional criminalists to work more cases, added overtime, bought analysis equipment and hired private firms to process DNA.
Elsewhere, the backlog has haunted detectives, as it did in a rape case that Detective Tim Marcia of the Los Angeles Police Department worked 10 years ago. A 43-year-old legal secretary was raped in her home as her son slept in another room. The attacker forced the woman to destroy evidence by cleaning herself.
“Given the way everything happened,” Detective Marcia said, “I knew in my gut that this was a repeat offender and he was going to strike again.”
Detective Marcia said he had rushed the woman’s rape kit to the department’s crime lab but was told to expect a processing delay of more than a year. He drove the kit to the state’s DNA testing laboratory in Sacramento, about 350 miles north. But a backlog there prevented testing for four months.
During that time, the rapist broke into the homes of a pregnant woman and a 17-year-old girl and sexually assaulted them.