DNA processing lags slowed hunt in Kensington strangler case

Posted: January 18, 2011

The DNA evidence used to identify the suspect in the Kensington strangulations was in the hands of Pennsylvania state police three weeks before the third victim was killed, but a backlog of cases prevented a match, according to a timeline released Monday night.

DNA from Antonio Rodriguez, 22, was provided to state police Oct. 25 under a program that requires all felons to submit genetic samples. Rodriguez faced an unrelated drug charge.

On Nov. 23, Philadelphia police submitted a DNA sample taken from one of the victims of the strangler. However, Rodriguez's genetic information had not yet been entered by state police into the national DNA database. No match was made, and no suspect was identified.

On Dec. 15, while Rodriguez's DNA awaited processing, the third victim was found nude from the waist down near railroad tracks off the 100 block of East Tusculum Street in Kensington. Casey Mahoney, 27, of East Stroudsburg, Pa., showed signs of sexual assault, police said at the time.

In a statement describing the handling of Rodriguez's genetic sample, state police said the DNA lab has a backlog of 5,000 cases. The turnaround time is about 80 days, according to Maj. Kenneth F. Hill, director of the Bureau of Forensic Services.

Further delay was caused by an upgrade to a computer at the national DNA database, called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), operated by the FBI.

Rodriguez's sample was uploaded to the database on Jan. 10, and a match was made at 10 a.m. Monday, according to the state police statement.

The backlog is a long-standing problem that plagues police departments across the nation and has been aggravated by laws that require genetic samples from most felons.

"Pennsylvania state police recognize the need to devote additional resources," Hill said in a statement, "and used all available means to address the issue."

Starting last June, 10 workers were hired and two others transferred into the DNA unit, Hill said. The backlog in cases is due to vacancies in the lab that were slow to be filled "due to the hiring freeze for state employees."

While the new employees are on board, "all are still undergoing training, which can take up to two years," Hill said.

The state police receive about 24,000 DNA samples a year from people convicted of a felony, and 2,000 samples from crime scenes.

ProPublica, a nonprofit that does investigative journalism, recently reported that at least 350,000 DNA samples from murder and rape cases remain untested, according to the federal government's best estimates.

Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

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