DNA Sample Backlog Raises Concerns At SDPD
GLORIA PENNER (Host): A new investigative journalism enterprise recently published its report on the San Diego police department crime lab. There it found scientists overwhelmed with a backlog of DNA samples. The team conducting the investigation is the Watchdog Institute. Lorie Hearn is its executive director and editor. Thank you for coming in, Lorie. Why is there a backlog of DNA samples at the San Diego police crime lab?
LORIE HEARN (Watchdog Institute): Well, the backlog -- the city crime lab has been struggling with the backlog for a number of years. The theories are that police agencies -- more detectives in the police agency -- are collecting DNA samples in more kinds of cases than ever before. Juries take DNA sampling, for example, very seriously. So, as more detectives are collecting more samples, the crime lab is under a lot of stress to try to get these done.
PENNER: So that's what's causing the increase in samples.
HEARN: This is what they say. They've had a recent spike in cases in the last few months that they can't explain. The backlog has been 10 cases a month, it's recently gone to 50 cases a month.
PENNER: So do you think there's any connection there then between the story that you're covering and the recent John Gardner case, the murderer rapist who got all this publicity about the killing of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois?
HEARN: It's a bit to know that precisely, but certainly it seems to be a coincidence. There was, as you know, controversy surrounding the attack on the jogger in December that was ultimately linked to John Albert Gardner. DNA evidence was collected from that case. It was originally classified as an attempted robbery rather than an atttempted sexual assault, which probably would have moved that DNA testing up higher in the chain of decisionmaking. So a lot of attention was paid to the crime lab and DNA evidence at that time. So, it's difficult to say that might have prompted some more DNA collection.
PENNER: Well, at this point, the Watchdog Insitute has analyzed the backlog data. What were some of your findings?
HEARN: Well, it was really interesting. One of our missions at the Watchdog Insitute is to do data analysis. We have investigative reporters and data analysts. We requested the backlog from the police department, and essentially what that was was a snapshot in time. You can imagine a backlog as a dynamic, changing database, given any particular day you're going to have different cases, different samples that are being signed out. So our sample was as of March 13, and we asked for it electronically. What the police department gave us was a list of dates that samples were submitted, kinds of cases. One thing we did not get, which was, which was highly unfortunate I think, was specifics on exactly what the crime was. For example, we knew there were homicide cases on the list, but we didn't have any details of what those homicides were. The police department said that those were subject to ongoing investigations, and releasing that material would have possibly jeopardized those investigations.
PENNER: So what kind of consequences could this DNA backlog mean for the general public? I mean, yes, it's very interesting, and kind of horrifying and shocking, but how would it affect the general public?
HEARN: Well, the DNA samples as we all know, are used not only in cases to prosecute folks, but they're also used to clear people. And if there is a backlog of cases that have not been tested, there could be people waiting in jail to find out if they are properly charged with a crime. So they could be connected to other crimes, someone in jail perhaps, and if the DNA was run and matched to, say, an outstanding crime, you might then know -- be able to solve some of those crimes for folks. That is the public safety issue.
PENNER: And what would it take to fix this situation?
HEARN: Well, what the crime lab says is it would take more money. They've already put $2 million in federal grants in the last three years to try to keep up with the backlog. The crime lab now says they need $635,000 more to hire five more scientists. Certainly, an evaluation of how the crime lab is run before you just pour more money into it would probably be a good idea, but the city says that money is clearly the answer here.
PENNER: Thank you very much, Lori Hearn.
HEARN: Thank you for having me.