Police break DNA machine with overuse

Crime lab chief says city needs more than one

April 18, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police were unable to run DNA tests on evidence for three weeks recently after an $80,000 machine broke down - delaying analysis in about 20 cases, police officials disclosed yesterday.

The problem stemmed from overuse of the department's 310 Genetic Analyzer, causing the machine's lasers to burn out in the middle of last month, officials said. Police have since fixed the device, officials said.

The breakdown highlights the need for more DNA equipment, police officials said, especially as the department begins to analyze hundreds of cold cases during the next year. Police said that no prosecutions were harmed by the breakdown.

"I definitely need another one," said Edgar F. Koch, director of the city police crime lab, referring to the DNA testing machine. "There's an urgency to get these things done. We're running it all the time."

The city has about 5,100 dormant cases (including 800 homicides) dating to the late 1980s that have evidence that might contain DNA, police said.

In January, police received a $350,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, which was matched by the city, to begin conducting tests in those cases.

Police say they will begin testing the cold cases this month. They will use a private laboratory in Springfield, Va., to analyze the evidence because there are too many cases to test on the city's machine.

Last year, police tested 50 cold cases and made six DNA matches. As a result, two men have been arrested and charged with violent crimes, including one homicide.

At the urging of city officials, legislators passed a bill this session requiring people convicted of any felony and misdemeanor burglary to submit a DNA sample to the state database. State officials will begin obtaining those samples in October - but only if they receive a $1.5 million federal grant.

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