Evidence Delay

Tucson police, like law enforcement agencies across the nation, are suffering crime-lab backlogs as criminals remain free

Six weeks ago, a 25- to 30-year-old man raped a 19-year-old college student in her West University home, where she was waiting for her fiancé to come home from Tae Kwon Do practice.

Three hours later, as the siege of fingerprint dusters and flash bulbs began to subside, a Tucson Police Department officer escorted the woman to Tucson Medical Center, where a DNA sample was taken and placed into police evidence.

Today, chances are good that the key to the identity of the woman's attacker is still in evidence, sitting among the 314 samples waiting in the backlog at TPD's Crime Lab.

If detectives can prove that the suspect is a serial rapist, they might get this missing piece of the puzzle back in just less than four months. If not, results could take more than 14 months.

With the number of crimes and Arizona's population increasing, the need for forensic evidence has stretched the Tucson Police Department's lab far past its limits--worse than the average backlog of the four labs run by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, but on par with others across the country.

"We really aren't staffed right and don't have the resources available," said Susan Shankles, TPD Crime Lab superintendent.

The deluge of requests from detectives searching for a rock-solid answer to their various cases recently sent Tucson Police Chief Richard Miranda to plead with the City Council for help in increasing the size of the forensic lab, along with hiring more officers and staff. In his presentation to the council, Miranda said that, ideally, the growth would bring Tucson's officer-to-citizen ratio in line with the national average, said Assistant Chief Kathleen Robinson, who manages the Investigative Services Bureau.

"Without the support, whether it be staff, officers or forensics, there are times when the arrest of a suspect is really out of our hands," Robinson said.

Work at TPD's crime lab is currently divided into three priorities, Shankles said. Evidence classified as first priority--relating to murder, cases going to trial and serial sexual assaults--takes 119 days to process. Second-priority evidence--relating to lesser crimes, primarily lower-profile sexual assaults--takes 431 days. Third-priority evidence--usually relating to burglary and robbery--takes 455 days.

Some evidence, however, is processed sooner than 119 days, which in turn increases the backlog significantly for everything else, Miranda said.

Miranda said that while more civilian staff for the Crime Lab is in the '05 budget, there isn't enough money to lure applicants away from larger state agencies like DPS and Phoenix. They have been trying to fill one management position in the crime lab for the past six months.

"We've been looking statewide," Miranda said.

City Manager James Keene said that while he hoped the number of civilian positions allotted in the new '05 fiscal year budget would help reduce the backlog, bringing the lab up to the standards that the department is hoping for won't happen in the near future.

"It's going to take a while, and we're always dealing with the increase in judicial need for that type of evidence and possible increase in crime in the city," Keene said.

For Kathleen Mayer, supervisor of the special victims' unit of the Pima County prosecutor's office, these numbers wreak havoc on her department's ability to get suspects indicted.

"We need it to charge someone but in a lot of cases we can't, because we don't have the sufficient evidence," Mayer said.

Mayer cited a law that gives prosecutors 10 days from the filing of the initial complaint to bring an indictment. Miss the deadline, and the suspect walks. A recent study conducted by a private firm on Pima County's justice process found that case dismissal rates were about 50 percent.

Of the 265 rapes reported in 2003, the vast majority were never brought to indictment, due in part to investigations that were dropped at the request of victims who may have known their attackers. But 25 percent of those are classified as "stranger rape" (i.e., the attacker was not known to the victim).

"What's also horrible are those cases that could be solved," if the technology was readily available, Mayer said. She added that national statistics show that a rapist will, on average, remain active for 16 years before he or she is arrested.

Bridgett Riceci, president and CEO of the Southern Arizona Center for Sexual Assault, agreed with Mayer, adding that knowing the rape suspect could still be out there is traumatizing for the victim. For instance, the woman who was raped last month in West University has since moved out of her rented home.

"They never feel safe, and sometimes, they'll never feel safe again," Riceci said.

Increased staffing and equipment isn't the only answer to the growing problem. Shankles is hoping that TPD will get some help from the city or receive one of the many grants being awarded to various DNA labs by the U.S. Department of Justice--ideally, enough for an entirely new building. However, many of the grants listed on the Nation Institute for Justice's Web site call for strict and limiting guidelines if grants are used to build new structures.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety labs face problems of their own. Agencies using their crime lab can expect a wait of two to four weeks to process evidence in a top priority case, while those with lower-priority cases wait about three to four months, said Todd Griffith, who oversees the four DPS labs across the state.

Thanks to a funding increase in the state '04-'05 fiscal year budget, the processing wait-time for the backlog of DNA samples from convicted felons (taken under a state law introduced in 2002) and scores of prisoners looking for a second chance at a not-guilty verdict was trimmed down from a decade to about two years, with 80,000 samples to go. A federal grant that allowed about 20,000 samples to be given to private contractors also eased the backlog somewhat.

Gov. Janet Napolitano's office said that they are looking for federal money and working with a congressional delegation to fund more than $14 million and replace the rapidly aging DPS facility in Tucson. That lab, according to Ed Heller, manager for the DPS Southern Arizona Regional Crime Lab, is also working at about half of what it should be.

"We just don't have the room. We probably have room for one more technician," Heller said. "Things are just pretty cramped in here."

Shankles said that TPD only uses the DPS lab's services on occasion.

In the future, TPD officials intend to work with other labs across the state, Robinson said. She added that the problem isn't specific to Tucson or Arizona, but to the entire country.

"What they're dealing with across the country is what we're dealing with at home," she said. "We really need to look at this issue as a state."

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