Backlog of DNA testing stalls lab

Police unit's woes leading to high-profile trial delays, spike in dropped drug cases

  • Francis A. Chiafari inherited shoddy recordkeeping, unusable equipment and a history of evidence tainted by analysts' DNA when he took over the Baltimore Police Department DNA lab in January 2009. He has made changes, but staffing remains a challenge.
Francis A. Chiafari inherited shoddy recordkeeping, unusable… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
March 14, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

More than a year after an internal audit highlighted widespread deficiencies within the Baltimore Police Department's crime lab, the division has a backlog of thousands of analysis requests. The problem has forced city prosecutors to drop or postpone cases - including the high-profile trial of serial drunken driver Thomas Meighan Jr., accused of killing a Johns Hopkins University student in a hit-and-run.

And it could get worse. New regulatory requirements are coming that will place more demands on an already stressed lab.

The holdups mean "justice suffers," along with victims, the community and defendants, who "deserve to be tried in a speedy fashion," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

The police lab's director, Francis A. Chiafari, says the agency is understaffed because of a 2007 hiring freeze and consequently is overworked.

Last week, Meighan's case was delayed until June because DNA analysis wasn't ready.

It joins the hate-crime trial of Calvin Lockner, charged in the vicious beating of an elderly black fisherman and the attempted-murder trial of teenager Lamont Davis, accused of mistakenly shooting a 5-year-old girl during a July street fight.

Davis' case has been put off three times because of DNA testing delays, most recently in January. That pushed the case beyond Maryland's 180-day trial deadline, which can only be extended if a judge finds good cause.

Administrative Judge Pamela White, who granted Davis' postponement, said in court that she saw a stream of DNA delays that week - roughly 10 cases. The deluge raised concerns for her, which she took to the judge in charge of the criminal division.

"Whether it's because of manpower or whether it's because of bureaucracy, I am concerned about timely trials," White said in an interview last week.

It all points back to the lab.

Chiafari took over in January 2009 after the previous director was fired, inheriting a lab with significant problems, including shoddy recordkeeping, unusable equipment and a history of contaminating evidence with analysts' DNA. Since then, he said he's brought the equipment up to standards and is using technology to streamline operations.

But he can't do anything about the staffing, a problem underlined every time court cases are postponed.

Staffing challenges
Chiafari blames open positions for the backup, along with an increase in detectives' requests for analysis, which have soared. Submissions to just the 10-employee serology section, which tests for the presence of bodily fluids, were up 42 percent last year, he said.

"Everybody works very hard and tries to help everybody [else] as much as they can, but when you're talking about a caseload [of this size], it can be somewhat problematic," Chiafari said. "I could easily make use of a staff that doubles the size we have."

By Chiafari's estimation, the Baltimore lab - which also handles fingerprint, firearms and even handwriting analysis - outperforms the national average threefold on the whole, which means analysts and technicians are doing three times the amount of work others usually do.

But the backlogs don't reflect it. Roughly 3,100 cases are now awaiting lab testing for bodily fluids, 3,000 cases are awaiting drug analysis, and more than 400 cases need to have DNA analyzed by one of the six DNA analysts on staff.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office meets with lab representatives and detectives to help prioritize requests several times a month, said Assistant State's Attorney Sharon Holback, director of forensic investigations.

Difficult juggling act
Violent crimes top the testing priority list, while small-time drug cases rank at the bottom. That resulted in 758 district court drug cases being dropped in 2009, according to Holback's office. That's a 47 percent increase in dropped cases over 2008, even though chemical analysis requests were down about 13 percent, to 27,000.

"I'm not completely satisfied" with the output, Chiafari admitted. But he, like others, attributed it to a lack of resources. They're doing the best they can, he says.

Baltimore prosecutors have learned to "count that first postponement as a given," Jessamy said. And defense attorneys rarely think twice about DNA delays any longer if there is other evidence against their clients, said Michael Kaminkow, who represents private attorneys on the city's public Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention recently awarded city police a $375,000 grant to help process DNA evidence. Chiafari said it will be used to outsource about 275 cases, but city lab workers still will have to review the work. A federal law enforcement rule prohibits using grant money to hire DNA analysts, because they must be full-time positions.

"It's not a panacea," Chiafari said of outsourcing. And though he's been given permission to fill two vacant management positions, he worries that new regulatory requirements will increase the lab's burden.

Maryland's legislature passed a law in 2007 that will require significant changes in crime lab regulation, making them run more like hospital labs by 2012. And a new accreditation process begins in 2014.

"I think everybody is making a good faith effort," said Chiafari, who has a long history with the Baltimore police lab. He did contractual DNA work for the police lab through private companies for more than 20 years, and he started the facility's own DNA lab when he was working as a technical leader.

"My goal, is in my lifetime here, I will see [the backlog] reduced from what it is now," Chiafari said.

He added later: "I don't deal with an ideal world. I'm trying to manage the group we have."

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