Jan Burke

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Backlog Story: Part 1

Despite what you see on TV, most crime labs are under-funded. You've probably received that message if you've been reading here for a while.

Labs aren't just a little bit short of change when it comes to buying new gadgets. A great many of this country's forensic scientists are working in tiny, inadequate spaces and using outdated equipment and technologies. Their labs can't properly store or track evidence and are having trouble paying enough to their staffs to retain them. The labs are trying to cope with overwhelming backlogs -- untested evidence piles up quickly, rates of solving crimes slow.

Why does this happen? Those who make decisions about spending tax dollars on law enforcement and criminal justice usually don't make labs a priority. There are a variety of reasons for this, some understandable, others god-awful, but the only thing that seems to make a difference in priorities is public pressure. Unfortunately, the problems of labs are a reality that most people don't seem to grasp. (This is exactly why the Crime Lab Project got underway.)

Sometimes, one case makes a difference to a lab, can help the public to see the reality.

The January 6, 2002 high profile murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington in her Cape Cod home was such a case. Although there was DNA evidence at the scene, the case went unsolved. You can see from this 2003 story by CBS that theories abounded -- as did books and stories that "fictionalized" the facts and further scandalized -- but law enforcement hoped for help from DNA:
District attorney Michael O'Keefe says recently revealed DNA evidence shows that within hours of her death, Christa Worthington had sex [with] - for now, a mystery man.

"It's DNA of an unknown male that's consistent with someone having had sexual relations with the victim," says O'Keefe. "And it's that DNA that we seek to match."
Frustrated for three years, in 2005 investigators even tried collecting -- on a voluntary (and controversial) basis -- DNA swabs from local men to look for a match. Part of the controversy stemmed from the fact that the lab was already backlogged. Before any of the hundreds of volunteered samples were tested, the match came through a sample collected in March 2004, in an earlier effort to eliminate suspects. The match was to Christopher M. McCowen, who has since been convicted of the murder.

When the public realized that the sample of McCowen's DNA had been sitting untested in the state lab for almost a year before the crime was solved, a hue and cry went up that was heard across the country. The price of backlogs had been brought home: a violent criminal had been left free -- and free to possibly commit other crimes; the innocent were forced to live under a cloud of suspicion; the family, friends, and community of the victim were left without answers.

There was little mystery about the cause of the delay. The under-funded crime lab didn't have the resources to process all the evidence submitted to it. The legislature declared it was a shame (without always owning up to the fact that it was a shame partly of their own making) and an outrage and they would have no more of it -- they voted millions more dollars to the state lab.

But as events proved last week, the lab's troubles weren't over.

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