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SDPD Crime Lab Can’t Keep Up With Volume Of Evidence

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Aired 6/1/10

What do you think should be done to ensure that DNA samples get tested at crime labs? Are you willing to pay more in taxes to fight crime through DNA testing? We discuss how the backlog of evidence may impact public safety in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. DNA continues to be a remarkably accurate tool in forensic science. If you've got a DNA sample from a crime scene and you can match it with a suspect or someone in a DNA database, you've got a powerful piece of evidence that often leads to a conviction.

But, DNA analysis has become such an essential tool in crime solving, that more and more and more DNA evidence is being collected. And many crime labs across the nation, including our lab here in San Diego, are not keeping up with the volume. So why have crime labs not kept pace with the demand for DNA analysis, and what are the consequences of having a backlog of untested DNA evidence? I’d like to welcome my guests for this discussion of the DNA backlog. Brooke Williams is an investigative reporter for the Watchdog Institute. She wrote the story which appeared last week in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the DNA backlog at the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab. And, Brooke, welcome to These Days.

BROOKE WILLIAMS (Investigative Reporter, Watchdog Institute): Thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Rock Harmon is a DNA expert. He’s retired after a 33-year career as a Senior Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County. He’s a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and an Instructor at U.C. Davis in the Masters in Forensic Science program. Rock Harmon, welcome to These Days.

ROCK HARMON (Instructor, UC Davis, Masters in Forensics Science Program): Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think should be done to ensure that DNA samples get tested at crime labs? Are you willing to pay more in taxes to fight crime through DNA testing? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Brooke, the Watchdog Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in San Diego. What was it that made the institute focus attention on the crime lab?

WILLIAMS: The Chelsea King and Amber Dubois cases. As you probably remember, there was a jogger who was attacked in the same park in which Chelsea King, the high schooler, was – went missing. And after the jogger was – after Chelsea King went missing, the police remembered that there was this attack in the same park and remembered that there was a sample of DNA taken from the jogger that had not been tested. They decided to go ahead and test it at that point because they thought that it could perhaps provide a suspect for the Chelsea King case.

CAVANAUGH: And, indeed, that’s what it did.

WILLIAMS: They – the lab said that the sample did not provide a suspect. I’m not sure, you know, how – what linked Michael…

CAVANAUGH: John Gardner…

WILLIAMS: John Gardner…

CAVANAUGH: …with the Chelsea King case. But that’s when they decided to test this untested bit of DNA from this previous jogger attack…

WILLIAMS: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …in the same park.

WILLIAMS: And so we wondered what other samples aren’t they testing. What else is in this backlog? And could there be other samples that could provide a suspect for some crime?

CAVANAUGH: So what did your investigative report find out?

WILLIAMS: Well, they – at the time that they copied their backlog for us, there were 445 requests for DNA testing that had not been fulfilled. Two of them were from crimes in 2006, a dozen were from crimes in 2007. There were many, many burglaries. There were 35 homicides, 194 burglaries, so almost half of the backlog, everything from assault to rape to carjacking, even theft and vandalism cases in there. And, let’s see, almost half a dozen cases had been in the backlog for more than a year.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you something, so you get all this information from the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab and they – you’re seeing – you’re mounting evidence here of a rather large backlog in untested DNA samples. Did you ask them why? And what did they tell you?

WILLIAMS: Well, it’s a problem that’s snowballing. Yes, we asked why, and it comes down to money. They don’t have enough money to hire five additional scientists, which they would need in order to get on top of all of the requests that are coming in. More and more requests are coming in right now so the backlog is actually getting worse. It’s been bad for years and now it’s getting worse quickly. So the crime lab manager is very concerned that if he can’t hire an additional five scientists that the problem will continue to get more out of hand.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Brooke Williams and Rock Harmon, and we’re talking about the backlog of DNA, untested DNA, evidence at the San Diego department crime lab (sic), taking you calls and comments, questions, 1-888-895-5727. Rock Harmon, let me ask you, as I said in the beginning, this is not just a San Diego problem, is it?

HARMON: Nope. It’s a national problem. You know, I’m familiar with similar situations recently publicized in San Francisco and in Alameda County where I worked for 33 years. It’s, as Brooke said, it’s something that takes a long time to build up. It doesn’t get any better until new resources are committed to it, so – and it’s not the lab’s fault. They can tell you, with five more analysts how many cases they can crank out. So if they’re not provided that funding, then they can’t do it and the backlog builds until something like this happens. So it’s a very common problem but it seems to be one that’s readily, easily ignored in spite of all the great things that we’ve been able to do with DNA in solving unsolvable cases.

CAVANAUGH: Rock, tell us – explain to us how a backlog of DNA evidence actually can affect public safety.

HARMON: Sure. Let me give you an example. Brooke mentioned that there were many burglaries. The Denver Police Department, Denver DA’s office, did a study, two-year study, and I’ll just give you some quick bullet points from this study. They were able to identify, catch and convict 95 prolific burglars. The burglary rate after that decreased 26% and they projected by their ability to convict these people— many of them without trials because the cases were so overwhelming—they projected a savings to the community that pays their salaries of $29 million. I’m not quite sure how they came up with that. But, I mean, there’s another aspect to this, too, and that is the voters of California resoundingly support this whole process as was evidenced when they voted for Proposition 69 in 2004. And one of the arguments that was made is burglars go on to commit more violent crimes and much more serious crimes, so if there are a lot of burglaries in the backlog, you can see what’s happening. They’re possibly being – facilitating continuing their careers. I mean, the reason people really get behind the DNA databank and the DNA laboratories is because it can prevent crime. So when law enforcement does not fully utilize it, in a sense they’re allowing these crimes to continue and so it’s not something that – It’s easy to ignore because it’s seldom publicized until something like this happens but once it gets publicized, it’s a question of money. Is the government willing to come up with the amount of money it takes to process all these cases?

CAVANAUGH: Brooke, where does the funding come from for DNA testing at the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab?

HARMON: You know, I’m not totally familiar…

CAVANAUGH: No, I – I was…

HARMON: …with San Diego but it come…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HARMON: …I’m sure it comes from the mayor’s budget, the city budget.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed, Brooke, do…

WILLIAMS: It does.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

WILLIAMS: Yes, out of the police department’s budget.

HARMON: Sure, now there is federal funding that’s available and I’m sure they’re taking advantage of it.

WILLIAMS: They are.

HARMON: But there are limitations placed on how it can be utilized. It can’t pay the salaries of new employees.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly.

HARMON: So that – So, you know, it really is a local undertaking and, as I said, locally it’s – this thing’s happening everywhere.

CAVANAUGH: Brooke Williams, how does the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab, how do they prioritize which samples to test?

WILLIAMS: Well, crimes against people always take priority over crimes against property. And from there, they take into account the integrity of the sample, where it was collected. For instance, if the sample was collected from the counter at a bank, it would not have as high a priority as a sample collected from somebody’s bathroom counter because at the bank many people touch that counter, and the chances of that sample providing a good suspect or eliminating a suspect are not as high as another sample taken from somewhere else. They also get a lot of pressure, I hear, from police and prosecutors, so I’m not sure how often that influences what sample they test but I hear that sometimes the prosecution can push forward certain samples.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Rock Harmon, you can tell us about that.

HARMON: Sure. No, absolutely. And, you know, they’re constantly juggling because the case that just happened yesterday, if it fits their criteria, jumps to the head of the line. So people are constantly vying to get to the head of the line when things can’t all be done in an orderly manner. I mean, Brooke mentioned – If there are prosecutors involved, that means these are charged cases, they’re already in the court system and the ability to either plea bargain or go to trial on a case where the DNA typing hasn’t been done, is severely, severely curtailed. And by that I mean both the prosecutor and the defense attorney would need to know how strong or weak their respective cases are before they get resolved. So if a significant number of these cases are actually charged cases in the system, which I’m sure they are, it really tends to clog up the system until the work can be done or not.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Rock Harmon and Brooke Williams, and we’re talking about the backlog of DNA samples untested at the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab, and actually at crime labs across the United States. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Brooke, there’s actually an interesting postscript to some of what you found out in your initial request for information from the crime lab, that oldest sample of untested DNA from 2006, what happened to that?

WILLIAMS: Well, after we requested this database, I believe within a few days of the crime lab responding to our request, they looked over their data and assigned the oldest case. I believe it was within three days of our request. When I asked the crime lab manager why now, why just in March 2010 are you just now assigning a case from 2006, he said that it was because he was looking over the database to make sure it was accurate and, in doing so, a supervisor saw that case and decided it was time to assign it.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of a case was that from?

WILLIAMS: It was a homicide, a murder in 2006. And, unfortunately, we were not able to identify any of these cases…

CAVANAUGH: Except for the broad generic category of what they were.

WILLIAMS: Right. All we know is that it was a murder in 2006. That’s it. And that’s because they believe that any details are not – are exempt from the Public Records Act.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Rock Harmon, that was our oldest case here in San Diego but I understand from your experience that does not necessarily constitute the oldest case in backlog of evidence across the nation.

HARMON: Sure. You know, not having seen the information that Brooke came up with, at the same time new cases are being submitted for DNA typing there should be a kind of a parallel cold case effort and homicides have no statute of limitation.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HARMON: We’ve prosecuted cases 30 years old where I’ve worked. So at the same time those cases should be creating their own backlog unless people just aren’t submitting them because they know the work can’t yet be done – can’t be done, which would be a tragedy. So, you know, that part of it doesn’t make sense. But you can imagine when there’s a competition between a new case and an old case what wins out, it’s the new case, as it should. So, you know, it’s of a little concern that there are not old cases in that backlog.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Lyle is calling us from Ocean Beach. Good morning, Lyle. Welcome to These Days.

LYLE (Caller, Ocean Beach): Hi. Thank you very much for the call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

LYLE: I just had a question. There’s several other institutions other than the police crime lab that are capable of running these genetic samples that you’re talking about. And I’m just curious, you know, such as universities, and I’m just curious if anybody’s thought about, you know, using some of these molecular labs at universities to run the samples if the police are limited by their budget.

CAVANAUGH: Lyle, thank you for the call, and I’m going to pass that along to Rock Harmon. What do you think about that?

HARMON: It’d be a great idea if they had the same technology. They don’t. Universities need money, too, so they wouldn’t be doing it for free. There are, however, a number of private labs around the country and if you Google the San Francisco Crime Lab solutions to these things, they’ve identified a private lab. There are some problems with using private labs and this is something that probably should be changed, and there’s a lot of discussion in Washington, D.C. about it. And that is, private labs, on their own, cannot produce a profile that then they get uploaded to the database and search the crime. This – there are bureaucratic reasons for this. They’re not very good anymore, but they exist to prevent using private labs for unsolved – to generate profiles from unsolved cases. So, but once again, if you Google the San Francisco solution, going outside costs you a lot more money. If you could do it inside and just add it to your infrastructure, in the long run you’d solve that profile upload problem that I just addressed and you’d be able to keep up with the backlog or there just wouldn’t be a backlog anymore. So, ideally, the solution should be an in-house solution allowing the lab to then maintain a staffing level that would be able to provide some real time turnaround.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about a backlog of DNA testing, samples untested, at the San Diego crime lab. We have to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue with our discussion and continue taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Brooke Williams, investigative reporter for the Watchdog Institute. She wrote a story which appeared in the U-T last week about the DNA backlog at the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab. And Rock Harmon is a DNA expert. He is a retired prosecutor – I’m sorry, Senior Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County, and he’s a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and an Instructor at U.C. Davis in the Masters of Forensic Science program. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Brooke, I want to go back with something you said while you were discussing your back and forth with the crime lab and getting information. They said that there was this uptick, this considerable uptick in the number of DNA samples that were being sent to the laboratory. Did they tell you why?

WILLIAMS: No. The manager of the crime lab does not know why and would not speculate as to why it might be happening.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me speculate for a minute, okay? Because, as you mentioned, Rock, Katie’s Law, the – California’s Prop 69…

HARMON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …started taking samples last year from everybody arrested on a felony charge, and this is DNA samples…

HARMON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …not just people who have been convicted but everyone arrested on a felony charge. I’m wondering, how might this affect what we’re – this backlog of DNA testing in California and maybe even here in San Diego?

HARMON: That’s a different pot of money, so no effect. That’s a self-funded mechanism. It just added another penalty to every ticket that people get, so they’re really separate pots of money and shouldn’t have any impact on it. In fact, if anything, the fact that there are many more offenders being introduced to the database should result in an increase in solving those cases.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. How long, Rock, does it take to process DNA evidence? Are there different types of tests that these samples are subjected to?

HARMON: You know, just to try to keep it simple, not really. Everything is done in a standardized way. The actual process doesn’t take that long. It’s actually getting to it and doing it because for economical reasons they try to group cases together because the equipment has a certain number of slots. They never want to try to go through a cycle of things without all the slots being filled because that would just be wasting time. So the actual – the time it takes to do it is not part of it. It’s the time it takes to get to do it or the – Brooke mentioned the prioritization system, that’s totally sound. It makes total sense, their approach. But the reality is, given the numbers of people they have and the numbers of requests they have, they cannot satisfy those requests in a reasonable period of time.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Ben calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Ben. Welcome to These Days.

BEN (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. The first comment actually was already addressed by Maureen. She just talked about Katie’s Law and the uptick in the samples from those – anybody who’s just been arrested, and that was actually going to be my first question. But then I had – I apologize to your screener. I have one other comment and I don’t expect an answer right away but if the Watchdog group has any statistics on the amount of convictions that were still able to result in the cases that – where DNA was still pending at the lab. Like if there was – if that hindered a prosecutor’s ability to obtain a conviction because there was a backlog or because his DNA sample was left in the lab as part of this backlog, if they were still able to move on and obtain a successful conviction or not, or even a plea bargain.

CAVANAUGH: I understand.

BEN: I’ll take my comment off the air.

CAVANAUGH: Great, Ben. Thank you very much. Do you have any correlation between the backlog of samples and the number of cases that are resolved connected to those samples?

WILLIAMS: No, I don’t.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. That’s short…

WILLIAMS: It’s a great question.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

HARMON: Maureen…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

HARMON: …can I just say something?

CAVANAUGH: Please do.

HARMON: That is really hard to track. Virtually impossible to track. That would – you know, it’s a great question because it’s the bottom line.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

HARMON: But it’s really hard to track that. You know, I can tell you there’s a highly publicized incident recently in San Francisco where a lab request on a murder case from 2007 sat unaddressed and in the ensuing months and years the same fellow went out and attacked a few other people and only – and he was charged subsequently with those attacks and ultimately they finally did the homicide case and the DNA matched the guy. So you don’t see these things publicized very often because they’re pretty embarrassing when they do happen. But I do believe they happen many – or, much more often than people are aware they happen.

CAVANAUGH: You’re talking about the Donzell Francis case…

HARMON: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …in San Francisco.

HARMON: Yep.

CAVANAUGH: Who’s accountable when something like that happens? Do – Is it just simply something slipping through the cracks or is somebody held accountable for it?

HARMON: Well, in this instance, that’s a good question. You’ll have to ask them who they decided was accountable. Usually they say we’re going to look into it and then nothing ever happens. So, you know, if the lab knew who evidence was going to be matched to, they’d love to put it at the head of the line. They don’t know at that point. They’ve just seen a lab request, so it’s really hard or impossible to blame the lab on it.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

HARMON: If the investigator knew, they’d deserve the Nobel Prize for prescience. So, you know, it’s just one of those things. It happens as a result of the backlog. We always herald the successes we have with these things and they should lead to many more successes but the existence of backlogs like this really impairs or limits the numbers of successes we can have, and does have an impact on pending cases, there’s no doubt.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Max is calling us from Connecticut. Good morning, Max. Welcome to These Days.

MAX (Caller, Connecticut): Hi. Hi, everybody. I know you mentioned briefly before something about outsourcing being quite expensive but has anyone looked at making use of the national network of municipal labs and looking for capacity and moving samples around as need be and then using outsourcing as a way to handle the spikes? And I’ll listen off the air. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Max. Rock?

HARMON: You know, I doubt there’s a municipal lab that could help out, especially to the extent that – It’s not hard to guess that every city has this same problem or every decent sized lab. So, the – it’s a great idea if there were that kind of industry out there or oversight. But I think if you’re in a small lab that doesn’t have much to do, you’ll probably get your budget cut and get your extra DNA people cut. I mean, let’s not forget these are tough economic times, too.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HARMON: So in good times maybe that would be a solution but if you look at what’s happening to law enforcement, they’re being told to cut their budgets like everybody else in government is, and when a resource like a lab technician or a DNA analyst is being underutilized, that position is going to get cut.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HARMON: So, I think it’s a great idea if there were a network like that to do and if there were smaller municipalities – See, most labs exist either in a big city, which is pretty overwhelmed with crime and has their own backlog, or a larger state entity. So I just don’t think there are those kinds of resources out there.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get a response from Brooke.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I haven’t heard anyone mention, this is the first time, a network of municipalities. However, Councilman Carl DeMaio, after this story ran, sent a memo to the city auditor asking the auditor to look at the crime lab’s – how it handles the DNA backlog. And as a part of that request, asked the auditor to evaluate whether it would help to consolidate the sheriff’s crime lab with the San Diego Police crime lab. So that’s one idea that I have heard.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Brooke, let me ask you another question. We are talking with Rock Harmon and we – a lot of your investigation focused on the police. But what did you hear from defense attorneys about this DNA backlog and the – and how it impedes what they need to do?

WILLIAMS: Well, defense attorneys say that it’s frustrating. It prolongs the amount of time that their clients sometimes have to wait in jail. And in some cases – one defense attorney was concerned that it would – could lead to a defendant not having – not exercising his right to a speedy trial and possibly even a dismissal.

CAVANAUGH: So nobody’s really happy with this.

WILLIAMS: No, no.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Joe is calling us from Alpine. Good morning, Joe. Welcome to These Days.

JOE (Caller, Alpine): Thank you. Hey, I have a kind of two-part question. The first part was, I was wondering if anybody’s ever done a study to see if the resource effort for doing DNA for evidence gathering versus, you know, the traditional knocking on the doors, if anybody’s ever done a comparison and if so, if it is a priority, why aren’t they transferring, you know, budgetary dollars from detectives or investigators over to the lab as opposed to looking for new money?

CAVANAUGH: Okay, Joe, thanks for the call. Rock, what do you think about that?

HARMON: You know, the second question’s interesting but you still need investigators to develop the case. You know, all DNA does is make an association between evidence and a person. You still need those same investigators to…

CAVANAUGH: Find the person.

HARMON: …to find the person, interview people, develop enough witnesses and things to present a case to the DA’s office. So, but, you know, I think there is a valid question within the police department budget to – and I don’t do budgets, I don’t know what they’ve done, but – because every day somebody in the police department decides who’s going to do what that day and I have a feeling if the public saw all the different assignments they’d say, you know, let’s do without that and add another DNA analyst to the budget because we can, you know, stop the horse-riding police officers if they do have them in Old Town or, you know, things like that, ceremonial things. I just think in tight times, the cuts need to be made where they continue to satisfy the public’s desire to be safe.

CAVANAUGH: And just stop those horse-riding police officers in Balboa Park.

HARMON: If that’s what they have. I don’t – that was just an example.

CAVANAUGH: To the heartbreak of many, Rock, to the heartbreak of many.

HARMON: I agree. I know. People would be sad, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Brooke, is – how has the San Diego Police Department responded to this investigation?

WILLIAMS: Well, they haven’t, to my knowledge. The response – the only response that I’ve heard is from Councilman DeMaio…

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

WILLIAMS: …asking for the city auditor to look at this.

HARMON: You know, LA recently went through something like this.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HARMON: And the city council, you know, how could this happen, all those things. But at the end of it, they came up with several million dollars to do it because that – that’s just the solution. It’s the only solution. And, you know, I have no idea what’s come of the expenditure of that but, clearly, there was a lot of debate about it. The police department took the position that they needed x-million dollars and ultimately they got it.

CAVANAUGH: And do you think that, Rock, this is becoming a higher and higher – visibility of this issue is becoming more and more something that different cities are looking at and saying, you know, if we want this evidence, we’re going to have to pay for it.

HARMON: Not really. It takes somebody like Brooke…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HARMON: …or in the LA instance, a lady from Human Rights Watch that did a similar study and came up with the numbers, so it takes somebody to turn up the heat and put it on the table and then it develops a life of its own. And the solution’s simple. It really is simple.

CAVANAUGH: More money.

HARMON: More money, yeah.

WILLIAMS: $635,000, to be precise.

HARMON: There…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for clarifying. That’s as simple as it can get except for finding it.

WILLIAMS: Annually.

HARMON: Yep.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us. I’ve been speaking with Brooke Williams and Rock Harmon. Thank you both.

HARMON: You’re welcome.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment about anything that you’ve heard on the air during this segment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. And stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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