DNA testing hinders swift justice
With DNA identification becoming more common in criminal cases, caseloads and backlogs are growing in some Pennsylvania crime labs, forcing prosecutors to sometimes wait months for results.
The wait time can be crucial in cases relying on DNA evidence to convict or clear someone arrested for a crime.
“You have cases being expedited in such a way that test results are sometimes not available when the case is ready for disposition,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., referring to cases that are handled in a fast-track court program for sexual offenders.
The number of DNA cases submitted to Allegheny County’s crime lab this year — 204 so far — is on track to triple from 72 in 2008. The state police DNA lab in Greensburg will see its caseload go to 2,000 this year from 1,200 five years ago. Philadelphia’s is on track to hit 3,400 this year from 2,466 in 2010.
To combat DNA backlogs across the country, the National Institute of Justice recently doled out more than $74 million in federal grants to 117 labs around the country, including $2.7 million to the three labs in Pennsylvania.
The state police lab is slated to get $1.4 million in federal grant money, while Allegheny County is scheduled to get $290,221 and Philadelphia is targeted for $1 million. Allegheny County’s grant will pay for overtime and provide money to purchase computers and software used in DNA analysis.
Tahir Gardner, 19, of Harrisburg spent nearly eight months in jail waiting for the state police crime lab to process DNA results that eventually helped free him on bond, said his attorney Bryan DePowell.
Gardner was arrested Jan. 29 in Harrisburg, accused of suddenly pulling away from a traffic stop and injuring a police officer. Police found him a few blocks from the incident, near where the vehicle had been abandoned.
DePowell said the police officer pulled a knit hat off the driver. Prosecutors notified him Sept. 7 that hair in the hat did not match Gardner’s DNA, he said. Although prosecutors didn’t drop the charges, they agreed after the results to lower Gardner’s bond.
“If the crime lab took two weeks, my client wouldn’t have sat in jail for (eight) months,” DePowell said.
Experts said advances in DNA detection at crime scenes and on objects found at crime scenes send more cases to the state’s three DNA labs for testing.
“It will never be zero. There will always be a backlog. If I said there was no backlog, I’d be flooded with requests,” said Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner. “Every publicly funded laboratory is facing insufficient resources.”
Williams said the DNA backlog at his lab sits at about 100 cases and the average turnaround time is about four months, although higher priority cases like homicides or rapes can be fast-tracked.
“If I ask them to do a job, they can turn it around in six to eight weeks. I think that’s reasonable,” said Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli, who heads the homicide unit.
At the state police crime lab, homicide and rape cases can be analyzed and sent out in about 30 to 60 days. Other cases take six to nine months as they sit in a 1,000 case backlog, a state police official said.
Manko said the wait time is affecting Sexual Offender’s Court, a specialty court aimed at fast-tracking non-violent sexual offenders.
“The court is also aware of this issue, and meetings have been held to determine what steps need to be taken to resolve the situation,” he said,
Beth Ann Marne, director of the forensic DNA division at the state police lab in Greensburg, said state police have doubled staffing in the past 2 1⁄2 years to combat the backlog, but new laws requiring DNA profiles of certain convicted felons be entered into a state database take time and resources.
“You can always use more bodies, but it becomes a resource issue, Marne said. “Everyone has a need for more people,” Marne said. “We are getting more and more cases.”
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said waiting for DNA analysis from the state police crime lab has not caused problems for his office, but the potential exists if the court were to fast-track a homicide case. He said a typical DNA analysis takes about six months to return to his office.
“If the person’s in jail, we’re required to bring them to trial within six months. If we didn’t have it, we’d have to go to trial without the DNA,” Peck said. “Luckily we’ve never had that problem because homicides are never ready in six months.”
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, chair of the judiciary committee, said the state police have told legislators that increased DNA requirements require more assets.
“(The backlog) isn’t really their fault,” Greenleaf said. “If we add more responsibility to them — and those ideas are important — we should put more resources there.”
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].