Backlogged Labs

Victims Hold Their Breath While Crime Labs Drown In DNA Samples.

AS SHE DID every day, Leslie called her 11-year-old daughter Amanda to make sure she had gotten home from school safely. But one April afternoon earlier this year, Amanda didn't answer the phone.

Leslie called again and again for 10 straight minutes, hoping and praying that her worst nightmare wasn't coming true. When she finally reached Amanda, she heard words that strike dread into the heart of any parent: "Mommy, there was a man here ..."

Leslie calls her daughter's rape a trip through hell--and says the Tucson Police Department hasn't made the ride any easier.

It was bad enough that the family traveled with police to Tucson Heart Hospital for an examination, where they faced a long wait. "They made her sit in those dirty clothes for three and a half hours," says Leslie. (Her and her daughter's names have been changed for this article.) "The first thing you want to do is shower."

As the parents' outrage began to boil over, the officers abruptly changed course, telling them they would have to go to University Medical Center. There, Amanda was seen almost immediately and doctors were able to obtain DNA traces of her attacker. Finally, sometime around midnight, eight hours after the assault, the family was able to go home.

But Leslie says her subsequent interaction with the police has been even worse. "The police have absolutely been not a bit of help," she says bitterly. Detectives didn't bother to fingerprint a knife she and her husband believed the rapist handled. They ignored Leslie's suggestion that they have Amanda help them with a sketch of her attacker. Just weeks after the assault, she couldn't get the detective on the case to even return her phone calls.

When she finally reached the detective, he told her that they had found a suspect and were planning on comparing DNA evidence. When she hadn't heard anything new after two weeks, Leslie called to find out the results of the DNA test, only to learn that TPD's crime lab had not yet tested the samples recovered from the attack two months earlier. When Leslie phoned the crime lab, a staffer told her that the lab had a backlog of more than 60 cases.

"That's when I lost it," Leslie says. "Most of these people who do these types of crimes are going to be repeat offenders. The longer you keep that DNA sample in the lab, the longer you're leaving this guy out here to do whatever the hell he pleases."

Walter Tannert, forensic administrator with TPD's crime lab, says the facility currently has a backlog of more than 50 cases. "You put one case out on the back end, and another two or three come in the front," Tannert says.

Tannert blames the backlog on "a combination of staff and equipment, primarily staff. You have to understand that DNA is becoming so much more important now; we get a whole lot more requests than we used to. We're kind of victims of our own success."

Leslie sees victims herself. "It is obvious that the police department is understaffed, under-funded and overworked, and all the honest, law-abiding citizens of the community are victims."

TPD's DNA testing backlog is minor compared to the Arizona Department of Public Safety's Scientific Analysis Bureau, which provides services to 227 separate entities in Arizona, including state, county, municipal and federal agencies. The state crime lab has struggled to keep pace with recent DNA testing techniques.

A review by the state Auditor General earlier this year found a huge backlog in testing DNA samples. According to the report, fewer than 2,000 (roughly 26 percent) of the 7,623 blood samples DPS had received from offenders convicted of specific crimes had been analyzed with up-to-date DNA techniques and loaded into the database. Another 38 percent (2,885 of 7,623) had undergone the initial analysis but were awaiting necessary quality control reviews before they could be uploaded.

Once DNA samples have been loaded into the state's database, they can be compared to samples recovered from crime scenes in the hope of finding a match. But that high-tech detective work can't happen until DNA from unsolved crime scenes is also loaded into the database--another area where DPS efforts are lagging. The performance audit found that DPS had performed DNA analysis on only 45 unsolved crime scenes. According to the report, "crime lab policy and practices have traditionally required a suspect to be identified before DNA analysis will be conducted on any submitted crime-scene evidence"--a policy the report called a "key barrier to the full and effective use of DNA technology in the criminal justice system."

Todd Griffith, scientific analyst superintendent for DPS's crime lab, says much of the backlog stems from changes in DNA technology. The agency recently switched to a new analytical method that takes less time, but the change meant many samples had to be re-tested using the new process.

Griffith says that DPS now has 4,917 complete DNA profiles of convicted sex offenders that have been loaded into the state database and forwarded to a similar federal program. Another 2,608 samples have been sent to private labs to help address the backlog. By early next year, Griffith hopes a total of 7,525 DNA samples will be available for cross-matching. Already, he says, the DNA cross-matching has produced a handful of hits that has allowed detectives to identify suspects.

The lab receives another 75 to 100 samples each week that it has to test, according to Griffith. In addition, the workload will increase this year because recently passed legislation is requiring DNA samples from offenders convicted of homicide and some burglary charges. In January 2002, the list of offenders required to give DNA samples will grow longer. The legislature also mandated that the lab conduct post-conviction DNA analysis that could conceivably exonerate people behind bars.

"From our perspective, we're just as interested in exonerating people as we are in convicting people," says Griffith. "We're thrilled if we can identify somebody who has for some reason been wrongly accused."

The state crime lab added three criminologists to help with the added responsibilities. Griffith hopes that more staff will be hired in the future.

Griffith says the crime lab is also accepting samples from "cold cases," or cases where a suspect has not yet been identified.

Among other recommendations, the Auditor General's report said that the crime lab should:

· develop a strategic plan to better define the DNA database programs missions and goals;

· improve its operation by prioritizing its analysis of non-suspect crime-scene evidence;

· increase the number of samples sent to outside labs to cut down the backlog; and

· dedicate at least one criminologist to analyzing non-suspect crime scene evidence.

"We have the equivalent of that," Griffith says. "We have not dedicated just one person. All of our people are working both cases where suspects are going to court and working cases without suspects."

The Auditor General also criticized the state's crime lab for a serious backlog of toxicology reports from blood and urine samples. Some samples went unanalyzed for more than five months. In February, the toxicology unit had 1,189 unanalyzed samples awaiting assignment to a criminologist for 30 days or more.

Griffith blames the backlog on a sharp increase in the number of requests for toxicology screenings, saying the numbers have climbed from an average of 315 submissions in the summer of 1999 to more than 700 today. He says the department has doubled its toxicology staff from five to 10 criminologists since the audit.

The recently passed federal budget includes $1.6 million to help DPS respond to some of the problems cited in the Auditor General's report. The grant, championed by Congressman Jim Kolbe, will help build a new crime lab in Southern Arizona. Currently, DPS' Tucson headquarters is located in a converted airplane parts hanger. "It's really not what you want for a crime lab." Griffith says.

The toxicology testing by the Tucson Police Department's crime lab is also facing scrutiny. Attorney Michael Bloom has filed a complaint against the lab, alleging that there is a lack of oversight of the facility.

"The basis of our challenge is really that in this state the forensic laboratories are simply not regulated," says Bloom, one of Tucson's foremost DUI-defense attorneys. "We have an agency called the Department of Health Services that is supposed to regulate, inspect, monitor; they just don't do it."

Tannert declined to comment on Bloom's allegations while the case is in litigation.

Bloom's legal action grew out of his defense of Marissa Rodriguez, who was celebrating her 21st birthday two years ago when she rammed a DPS patrol car on Interstate 10, trapping state trooper Juan Cruz in the flaming vehicle. Cruz perished from burns and smoke inhalation.

Rodriguez, whose blood alcohol content tested at .16 percent (above the legal limit of .10), cut a deal with county prosecutors, pleading guilty to manslaughter and two counts of aggravated assault worth 11 years behind bars. Prosecutors agreed to the deal rather than take Rodriguez to trial partially because the technician who tested Rodriguez's blood sample, Roger Corcoran, had sunk deeper and deeper into trouble with the department.

Corcoran's problems began when he admitted printing pornographic pictures from the Internet in August 1998. Corcoran told his superiors that he had printed the picture because his family was buying a computer and he wanted to show his wife how easy it could be to find offensive material on the Internet.

Tannert recommended Corcoran receive a written reprimand, writing that "he is recognized both in and out of the laboratory as a person of integrity, has strong family values and holds firm religious beliefs."

But Corcoran's Internet problems would continue to fester. A subsequent TPD investigation found that he began browsing the Internet using TPD computers to set up sexual encounters with women in cities he would visit for conventions and seminars. (He told TPD investigators one woman was a criminologist by day and a topless dancer by night.) He also developed a sexual relationship with a prostitute in Tucson, insisting to investigators that any money he paid her was just to help cover her rent. TPD moved to terminate Corcoran in May.

Bloom's current legal action is a long shot that could damage prosecution of more than 40 local DUI cases. But Bloom completed a similar Hail Mary in 1997 as part of a legal team that successfully got thousands of DUI cases dismissed because police were using a faulty breathalyzer.

Superior Court Judge Paul Banales is scheduled to rule on Bloom's suit this week.

As for Amanda, she's recovering from her ordeal, although she's always careful to make sure doors--in the house, in the car--are always locked. "The only thing she has expressed is to get this guy caught so he doesn't do it to somebody else," Leslie says.