Pa. senators hear solutions to DNA test backlog

Posted: March 19, 2011

Members of the Pennsylvania state Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Friday from experts on solutions to easing the backlog of DNA test results on criminal suspects. Such a delay allowed the man accused of being the Kensington strangler to continue killing and raping women in Philadelphia.

The hearing, called by Sen. Lawrence M. Farnese Jr. (D., Phila.) at the Independence Visitors Center, included legal experts and members of law enforcement.

The panel included Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), Sen. Daylin Leach, (D., Montgomery), and Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who this month introduced a bill that would require DNA testing for those charged with certain crimes upon their arrest.

The proposed legislation follows the arrest of Antonio Rodriguez, 22, accused of being the so-called Kensington strangler after a string of three killings and rapes in that section of the city.

Rodriguez had pleaded guilty to a drug charge Oct. 21, his only felony conviction. After submitting his DNA, he was freed on probation. The state police lab received his DNA on Oct. 25, but because of a backlog, it wasn't entered into the database until Jan. 10.

During that delay, Casey Mahoney was found dead Dec. 15, and three other women in Kensington were raped. Rodriguez was arrested Jan. 17.

Responding to questions from Farnese, Deborah Harley, chief of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said about 40 percent of adult cases her office handles involve the use of DNA.

Harley said the state should seek federal money for improvements to maximize newer technology, including "robotic extractors" and new high-speed genetic analyzers that can process 96 samples in two hours.

Harley also said outsourcing some DNA analysis to private companies "can help immensely in clearing up the current backlog."

Sarah Hart, chief performance officer for the District Attorney's Office, agreed that investing in technology "could save dramatic staff resources."

Capt. Robert J. Scott, acting director of the state police Bureau of Forensic Services, said testing arrestees would strengthen law enforcement capabilities.

"Attaining broader capabilities cannot come at the expense of diminishing present capabilities that law enforcement relies on every day," Scott said.

Christopher H. Asplen, a governmental affairs lawyer with the Seattle law firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell, said DNA testing works well in property crimes such as burglaries because burglars tend to commit the same kinds of crimes.

"If you take one burglar off the street, you can prevent 20 or 30 crimes," Asplen said.

He said backlogs in testing affect more than just the testing system.

"A backlog in DNA tests discourages police from using DNA testing," he said.


Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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