Inquirer Editorial: Kensington suspect caught

Posted: January 20, 2011

The arrest of the suspected Kensington strangler is a credit to tireless police work, but also highlights the need for more resources for crime labs.

It's possible that one of the strangler's victims might be alive today if not for a backlog of DNA cases at the state police lab.

Unlike in CSI or other TV shows about crime labs, there are about 5,000 samples of genetic material in Pennsylvania waiting to be entered into a computer system. Delays average about 80 days.

Police picked up Antonio Rodriguez, 22, on Monday, less than nine hours after a state police DNA database tentatively linked him to the murders. But lab delays prevented authorities from identifying Rodriguez as a suspect nearly two months earlier.

On Nov. 22, Philadelphia police submitted DNA from one of the strangler's victims to the state police crime lab. The purpose was to find out if the genetic material matched any DNA from convicted felons on file in the database.

State police had a sample of Rodriquez's DNA in their possession at that time. On Oct. 25, they had received his DNA under a program that requires all felons convicted of a new crime to submit genetic samples. Rodriguez, placed on probation in 2009 for drug possession, pleaded guilty on Oct. 21 to a felony drug charge.

But because of the backlog and other delays, state police didn't upload Rodriguez's DNA into the database until Jan. 10. During that delay, Casey Mahoney was found dead on Dec. 15, and three other women in the Kensington area were raped. If these cases are linked conclusively to Rodriguez, all four attacks might have been prevented.

Unfortunately, backlogs in crime labs are not unusual. Nationally, "rape kits" have sat untested in police evidence lockers for years. Congress has devoted attention to the delays in processing DNA evidence since at least 2004.

The Department of Justice has given Pennsylvania State Police about $1.4 million per year since 2004 for reducing DNA backlogs. But the requirement for testing all felons convicted of new crimes added to the workload. State police receive about 24,000 DNA samples per year from people convicted of a felony, and 2,000 samples of evidence from crimes. The backlog was as high as 63,000 in 2006.

State police spokesman Jack Lewis said the state has 15 analysts and 9 others working on DNA, and is training 11 more. He said a state hiring freeze had affected the department's ability to hire civilian employees.

Processing DNA tests quickly is just as important because it can exonerate people wrongly accused of a crime. The work of the Innocence Project, which has exonerated 265 people nationwide with the help of DNA, is powerful testimony to that.

State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) wants hearings to determine if more resources are needed for DNA lab work in Pennsylvania. In Kensington, the answer is clear.

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