Not quite CSI: With an 8-month backlog in processing DNA, justice is drowning in the gene pool

Delays left "Strangler" suspect Antonio Rodriguez on the street.
Delays left "Strangler" suspect Antonio Rodriguez on the street.
Posted: February 15, 2012

IN THE EIGHT months since armed robbers first burst into the TriStar Market, in Yeadon, store owner Patel Bharat has turned his counter and sandwich station into a $15,000 bulletproof glass cage.

Yet the State Police's Bureau of Forensic Services still hasn't processed three pieces of evidence - a gun, clothing and gloves - that were left behind at the scene and may hold the DNA clues to solving the case.

In the meantime, Bharat's store has been robbed twice more at gunpoint, including less than a month after the first robbery - and by the same two men, he believes.

"I think the police are not interested, but it matters to me," he said. "These guys are still out there. How do I take care of myself? If they don't catch the people, they will keep doing this. How much time do they need?"

The answer: A hell of a lot.

The wait time for DNA processing at the State Police's Bureau of Forensic Services averages 227 days, but not because it takes very long to do the scientific work - about 24 to 48 hours in a rush, experts say. But it can take nearly eight months for a DNA sample to be processed.

The backlog - more than 1,700 cases - has gotten so bad that law-enforcement officials around the Philadelphia area say that it jeopardizes and delays investigations, allowing criminals to remain free, potentially to commit other crimes while evidence crawling with their DNA sits untouched at the State Police's only DNA lab, in Greensburg, near Pittsburgh.

Yeadon Detective Sgt. David Splain, who is working the TriStar case, said that the backlog not only delays investigations, it also hurts victims.

"You're being victimized twice," Splain said. "Number one, your stuff was stolen, and, number two, everything is tied up because there's a logjam at the crime lab."

'Staggering' backlog

Every law-enforcement agency in the state, except those in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, which have their own crime labs, sends its DNA work to the State Police. That includes all the forensic casework samples taken from crime scenes, as well as samples taken from convicted offenders.

The backlog isn't just an inconvenience, or a theoretical bureaucratic snafu. In January 2011, it was discovered that State Police had received a convicted-offender sample, in October 2010, from Antonio Rodriguez, the man accused of being the Kensington Strangler, but it wasn't uploaded to the FBI's DNA database until 2 1/2 months later because of the backlog.

During that lag time, the Strangler claimed another victim.

"That case certainly highlighted the importance of DNA sampling and processing and getting it into the DNA database," said Lt. Col. Scott Snyder, head of the bureau. "And, certainly, there was a lot of frustration on the part of our folks because of what happened."

The bureau has whittled down the backlog of convicted-offender samples to 287, or about 15 days per sample, but the forensic casework backlog still stands at a staggering 1,500.

Observers say that the bureau's 23 DNA scientists are competent - they're just overwhelmed.

"There's a much greater demand and focus on DNA than ever before," said Snyder, who attributed the backlog to staff vacancies, training time and a high number of cases. "We'd certainly like to reduce that turnaround time but . . . much depends on the volume submitted and the personnel to do the work."

Meanwhile, a bill that has been passed in the state Senate and is awaiting action in the House would dramatically increase the workload for DNA testers without providing a way to pay for it.

If passed, the bill would expand offender DNA testing by including those arrested for any crime, adding about 123,500 samples to the more than 21,000 already sent each year, according to State Police projections.

Local investigators, like Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood, are furious.

"You've got all this technology, and now you can't use it because they're not properly funding it," said Chitwood, whose department during his tenure has shelled out more than $30,000 to private DNA labs when it couldn't wait for the State Police.

Nether Providence Detective Michael Erikson complained that his department can't afford such luxuries.

"I've submitted blood and I had the DNA of a suspect, and that still took over a year," he said. "I love DNA; the problem with it is the turnaround time, and we're not able to put out the money to send it to a private lab."

Janet Kelley, spokeswoman for Gov. Corbett, said that public safety has always been the top priority for Corbett, but these are tough economic times.

"Rather than the tax-and-spend mentality of years past, Governor Corbett believes we must live within our means," Kelley said. "The State Police are managing the workload and planning accordingly."

There may be room for hope. A State Police spokeswoman said last week that the bureau would be able to fund 10 new DNA scientist hires, positions that had previously been approved but were left vacant because of funding concerns.

Consolidation & CODIS

At the end of 2010, the State Police consolidated its two DNA operations into one lab in Greensburg to increase efficiency, but that has caused only more problems, some local law-enforcement officials complain.

"We used to be able to run up and, in some cases, get some work done on an accelerated basis in Bethlehem," Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said of the old lab. "That has all now been consolidated in Westmoreland County."

"The lab is staffed with the DNA scientists and automated equipment, and it's quite expensive equipment," said Snyder, head of the forensic-services bureau. "That's why there's only one."

The Greensburg lab is also the only one in the state with complete access to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the data bank that stores all convicted-offender profiles and forensic-casework samples. Authorities use the system to try to match DNA from a crime scene to a convicted offender's DNA, or the DNA from two crime scenes to each other. Last year, 503 crimes were solved in the state through CODIS, Snyder said.

Because of privacy concerns, CODIS is tightly controlled by the FBI, which also allows limited access to Philadelphia and Allegheny counties. That means that dozens of smaller police departments across the state can't immediately tap into one of the latest crime-fighting tools because they have to wait for State Police to upload their DNA samples to see if they can get a CODIS hit.

Also, departments that can afford to send DNA to private labs for high-profile cases create another problem in that those labs don't have access to CODIS, so those samples are never uploaded to the database, possibly preventing other departments from linking suspects to other crimes.

"That flies in the face of why CODIS was created," said Michael Garvey, head of Philadelphia's Forensic Sciences Bureau. "It was created to bring the country together to prevent each jurisdiction from creating its own database with its own rules and then not being able to connect these hits."

That hasn't stopped Bensalem police from sending most of their DNA work on violent crimes to a private lab in North Carolina, which also designed a database just for the Bensalem department.

"It's helped us dramatically solve crimes," said Bensalem Chief Fred Harran, who noted that the lab processes samples in less than 30 days. "Right now we have 57 cases closed because of DNA testing on our [system] and we have many samples in our data bank."

In the meantime, victims like Bharat, the Yeadon store owner, are still waiting helplessly for an answer from State Police, stung by the DNA backlog that they have no control over.

"What can you do? What can I do?" he asked.

"I can't fight with the police."

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