DNA as evidence: a work in progress

Progress: DNA analysis has helped police solve some "cold cases." But Maryland's transition to a DNA-based forensic system will require long-term financial commitment and policy leadership.

September 08, 2002|By Ralph Brave | Ralph Brave,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

During the past year, Maryland has made great strides in getting its forensic DNA house in order.

Last September, a statewide task force issued a report with specific goals for improving the operations in each of the state's forensic laboratories. In January, the city of Baltimore gained the national spotlight through an arrangement with ABC News by identifying four murder and rape suspects and exonerating a jailed innocent man through processing the DNA evidence from a few "cold cases."

By spring, state legislature passed a law expanding categories of convicted offenders who must submit a DNA sample to include all felons and select misdemeanors. Recently, Maryland State Police have secured a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to analyze the DNA evidence in thousands of no-suspect cold cases. Progress, indeed.

But there are still problems ahead. If the state is to make the transition to DNA-based forensic systems, it will require policy leadership and long-term commitment to funding. While serious money is involved, so too are the consequences of inaction serious. For example, the 39 cold cases analyzed by Baltimore with ABC News resulted in a 15 percent "hit" rate of identifying or exonerating suspects. That's typical of what's being found in other states. But that also means that the city's unprocessed backlog of an estimated 4,000 cases with DNA specimens could identify 600 or more murderers and rapists with the evidence in hand today. With rapists averaging eight assaults during their career, whatever time is required to process this backlog means additional, preventable crimes.

While the new federal grant will clear up much of the backlog in Baltimore and other Maryland localities (Prince George's County has more than 1,000 backlogged cold cases), it will not take care of all of it. Neither state nor local officials have committed to clearing up these case backlogs by a specific time.

The efficacy of processing DNA evidence depends greatly on establishing a DNA database - culled from convicted offenders - that is used to make matches with evidence gathered at crime scenes. When legislators enacted the law to include all convicted felons in that database, they attached a provision nullifying the new law if a commitment of $1.5 million from outside the state budget had not been obtained by Sept. 1, 2002. Whatever the legislative motives for including this contingency, it's a provision that might have already killed this law.

The state has not secured these funds. Instead, on August 16, the state Attorney General's office issued a letter that contends the $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for analyzing backlogged cold cases meets this requirement. The legal logic of the letter is, to say the least, a stretch, as the grant specifically forbids use of the money "for processing or DNA analysis of convicted offender samples." It is a stretch that could provide the basis for appealing any adjudication depending on a law that is arguably null and void.

The new grant and other federal funds will certainly be of great assistance in enhancing the forensic DNA capacities in state and local laboratories and in analyzing backlogged cases. But this federally-financed expansion only puts off the day of reckoning for taxpayers. A forensic DNA infrastructure will be created that will one day require state support or face contraction.

Adding to the burden is the reality that the technology is not standing still. New techniques for analyzing smaller quantities of DNA are being devised, stimulated in part by efforts to identify the remains of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. A national Commission on the Future of DNA evidence reported that within the decade, portable technology might permit processing biological evidence at the crime scene for rapid matching against the database of convicted offenders. These and other advances will require retooling labs and training of lab personnel. While average training needs for each forensic lab specialist is currently estimated at $1,500 per year, Baltimore City's budget remains where it was in 1980, providing about $12 per person per year for all training. Baltimore County does a little better providing $460 for its technicians' annual training, but even there the forensic lab specialists pay a substantial portion for training upgrades out of their own pockets.

One key to addressing the fiscal dilemma is cooperation among the state's labs, as called for by the statewide forensics task force. For example, the technical consultant to the task force found that although there are 24 forensic DNA analysts in public labs throughout the state, only 20 cases a month are being analyzed and reported, in part due to a lack of cooperation. Such cooperation will require a more active and regular interagency consultative process than currently exists.

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