by Brooke Williams | inewsource

Scientists at the San Diego Police Department’s crime lab have struggled for years against an insurmountable backlog of DNA samples from scenes of murders, rapes, robberies and other crimes.

And as the numbers grow, so do concerns about public safety.

“Crimes are going to go unsolved, and more people are going to be victimized that don’t need to be,” said Christopher Plourd, a criminal defense attorney and expert in DNA evidence. “The question I think the public needs to weigh: How much is it worth to us to, say, prevent a woman from being raped — how much is that worth?”

The public’s attention was trained on the crime lab and its backlog recently when John Albert Gardner III was charged in the murders of teenagers Chelsea King and Amber DuBois. He was sentenced May 14 for those murders and for attacking a jogger in December in the same park where King went missing.

Police took a DNA sample from the jogger at the time and sent it to the crime lab for testing. But the case was categorized as an attempted robbery, which was not a high priority, and the sample ended up in the backlog with hundreds of other cases. They didn’t test the DNA until King disappeared.

In the past six years, the crime lab has spent about $2 million in federal grants to attack the DNA backlog on such things as paying its scientists overtime and buying new equipment. But the lab started losing the backlog battle about three years ago, and crime lab manager Mike Grubb said money is the only way to win.

The crime lab has 71 full-time employee positions and a $9 million budget this fiscal year, up nearly 5 percent from 2008, according to the city budget. The staff includes 12 DNA scientists, Grubb said. He estimated he would need about $635,000 to hire five more scientists to clear the backlog and keep pace with requests.

“These analysts are worth their weight in gold,” he said. “They solve crimes; that’s the bottom line.”

To make matters more urgent, the number of cases submitted for testing over the past few months has spiked, despite relatively low crime rates. In 2009, the lab averaged 151 requests a month. Since March, the average has increased to 198 a month.

Grubb said the increase in requests for testing happened “almost overnight.” The number of cases that end up in the backlog shot from about 10 cases a month to nearly 50, he said, for reasons he cannot explain.

“It would be a very complex project to figure out why hundreds of detectives are suddenly submitting more requests for DNA analysis,” Grubb said. “Three months from now, if the numbers go back to an average of 150 per month, we might decide it was just an anomaly.”

Grubb said overall demand for testing has multiplied during the past 10 years as technology has improved.

In 2000, the crime lab received about 275 requests for DNA testing, Grubb said, mostly for homicides and sexual offenses. This year, he anticipates about 2,000 from a wide variety of crimes, including non-violent offenses and property infractions such as vandalism and theft.

Those involved in the criminal justice system say that in the big picture, increases in sampling can be attributed to greater DNA awareness. Detectives might be collecting samples in cases they previously thought weren’t suitable for testing, and they might be collecting samples from a wider variety of crimes.

“I think our jury pools are relying more heavily on DNA analysis,” said Dwain Woodley, assistant chief of Superior Court for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. “That’s evidence they find trustworthy.”

There were 445 cases in the backlog on March 19, the day the crime lab copied the database for the institute. Out of those, supervisors had assigned 190 to analysts for testing. The oldest DNA request in the backlog is from a murder in 2006. It was submitted in August of that year.

Other backlogged cases include robberies, murders, rapes, kidnappings and drug crimes.

DNA from burglaries and attempted burglaries makes up almost half of all the requests waiting to be processed.

The San Diego Police Department refused to identify or provide details about any case in the backlog, saying they are ongoing investigations. The department deleted anything in the data that could enable the institute to identify cases before releasing the spreadsheet.

Grubb said John Hemmerling, an assistant city attorney, told him the Watchdog Institute was not “entitled to” any details that could identify cases. The Institute left five messages for Hemmerling seeking an explanation, which he is required by law to provide, during the course of two weeks. He contacted the Watchdog Institute shortly before deadline and said he was out of town and unable to talk before publication.

A few days after the institute requested a copy of the backlog, a supervisor at the crime lab assigned the oldest cases, including two murders from 2006 and one from 2007.

The supervisor assigned those cases as a part of the process of reviewing the database for errors before providing it to the institute, Grubb said.

Supervisors in the crime lab decide which samples to process first, often while getting pressure from police and prosecutors. Crimes against people have a higher priority than property crimes, Grubb said. Samples are also prioritized based on their quality. For instance, he said, swabs of a surface that a suspect lightly and briefly touched, and swabs of common-use areas such countertops at banks, usually do not produce reliable results.

Alex Landon, a local criminal defense lawyer, said a backlog in DNA testing can could jeopardize a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, which is especially concerning if the person is in jail. In his experience, a judge will agree to a continuance, he said, but at some point the time lag could lead to a dismissal.

Defense attorney Plourd said it’s likely some of the hundreds of samples in line to be tested would help police identify people who have committed crimes. Every hour the samples go untested, he said, is another hour a perpetrator might strike again.

This story was published in partnership with The San Diego Union-Tribune. It was also featured on KPBS’ Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. KGTV carried a segment on the story, as did NBC.

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