Analysis of crime samples on hold

State police lab forced to stop processing trace evidence

382 cases across Maryland affected

3 analysts have left since April

officials see relief next month

December 08, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The processing of trace evidence from nearly 400 crimes has been put on hold at the state police crime lab while officials scramble to replace analysts who have departed, leaving the facility unable to pry clues from the hairs, fibers and gunshot residue found at crime scenes.

The lab, which accepts evidence from police agencies across Maryland, has in the past year lost all three of the analysts who handled trace evidence, a state police spokesman said yesterday. The third of those to leave resigned last month from the lab, which like others in the area struggles to compete against federal agencies for the services of forensic scientists.

The departures leave evidence from 382 crimes waiting to be analyzed, said state police spokesman Maj. Greg Shipley.

State police say they are contacting the police departments that have submitted trace evidence to determine whether it must be analyzed immediately for coming trials or whether processing can wait until next month, when state police expect to have at least two certified trace-evidence examiners.

H. Frederick Keeney, president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and chief of the Mount Rainier Police Department in Prince George's County, said yesterday, "Obviously, there's some concern about the evidence already submitted to the lab, but also what happens to future cases."

Keeney, who said he had been reassured by the state police superintendent that the issue was being addressed, said he is also waiting for responses to his calls for help from the FBI and other jurisdictions in the state that have their own crime labs, such as Baltimore County police.

State police and other law enforcement officials, including Keeney, say they know of no cases in which analyzing the trace evidence at the lab is crucial to making an arrest or of cases where the evidence going unprocessed could put a prosecution at risk.

If the evidence is needed immediately, state police will send it to a private lab or to the FBI for processing, Shipley said.

For that reason, the lack of analysts at the state police lab "shouldn't have a big impact" in the short term, said Calvert County State's Attorney Robert B. Riddle, who also serves as president of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association. Riddle also said, "If this were to become a permanent situation, it would be detrimental to the prosecution of cases."

Trace evidence isn't typically as important as DNA or fingerprints in identifying a suspect, said Thomas P. Mauriello, professor of forensic science at the University of Maryland, College Park. "In more cases than not, trace evidence helps you corroborate other evidence," he said.

But, he said, not processing the evidence could leave cases vulnerable to attack by defense attorneys. "They'll say you're hiding something or that the evidence could have exonerated their client," he said.

"This would be really serious if they weren't taking rapid steps to resolve it," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, associate provost at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "You can't put all these cases on hold indefinitely."

Trace evidence can sometimes be critical in building a case, Kobilinsky said. Glass chips, paint chips, hair and fiber can all help establish elements of a crime, he said.

The state police continue to process all other evidence, including DNA samples, fingerprints and drugs, Shipley said.

The other two state police trace evidence examiners resigned in April and July, said Shipley, who could not say why the examiners quit. But he pointed out that retaining forensic scientists has long been a problem for state police and other local police departments, in part because the many federal law enforcement agencies in the area pay more.

The state police crime lab's director is being recertified to examine trace evidence and should be able to begin processing by early January, Shipley said. A new trace-evidence examiner hired by the state police is to start work in the middle of next month, he added. The department is also advertising nationally to hire more trace evidence examiners, he said.

"We regret this brief interruption of service and are working hard to resume this service as soon as possible," Shipley said.

While the larger police departments, including those in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, process their evidence and sometimes also process evidence for smaller departments, all 147 police departments in Maryland are allowed to submit evidence to the state police crime lab, Shipley said.

Many police agencies have staffers who can do basic, first-step evidence reviews, and key evidence such as hair samples is frequently sent for genetic tests instead of trace examinations, said Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

"I don't think it'll have a big impact," he said. "I can't think of the last time I worried about trace evidence."

But in Howard County, which relies heavily on the state police lab for evidence analysis, the recent news will become part of talks about possibly doing some work in-house, officials said.

"The primary focus, at this point, we're looking into the possibility of handling some analysis ourselves," said Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

Howard prosecutors were already running into problems in District Court, where cases are being set for trial more quickly and postponements denied more often, said Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone.

Sun staff writer Lisa Goldberg contributed to this article.

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