Reducing the DNA backlog

Florida involves local law enforcement to prescreen evidence


     Training local law enforcement agencies to prescreen potential DNA evidence, as Marion and Seminole counties are doing, is the second point in FDLE's plan. Nationwide, many agencies are doing presumptive tests — but they aren't informing their state crime laboratory. When agencies do share presumptive test results with state crime labs, Lothridge says the lab often retests the sample. However, with proper training and standards in place, he says a state laboratory would not need to repeat these presumptive tests. The Marion County and Seminole County sheriff's offices perform both presumptive and confirmatory testing for blood and semen, and Marion County also screens for saliva. FDLE does not re-screen items from those tests. Items that are not found to have biological material in the screening process are not sent to FDLE.

The benefits — so far

     Biology Section Crime Lab Analyst Supervisor Marcella Scott of FDLE's Jacksonville Regional Crime Laboratory works closely with the Marion County Sheriff's Office. The bottom line is that when local agencies take on the time-consuming task of prescreening evidence, she says, "We don't have to."

     Samples needing DNA testing have been identified and isolated and go straight into DNA testing. Providing only the necessary, probative samples helps streamline the DNA submission process. Exactly how much of an impact prescreening has made in terms of specific numbers of cases or items has not yet been determined in part because FDLE has a new lab management program — Seminole County just opened its laboratory in December 2007 and Marion County opened its lab a little over a year ago. As more data is collected, FDLE hopes to show the impact that the county screening programs are having on the state. Tucker points out that any backlog reduction FDLE has experienced cannot be credited only to the prescreening program, but rather to the prescreening in combination with other points of the overall forensic services plan.

     At the end of December, the number of pending cases needing DNA analysis by FDLE was 2,290, and the average turnaround time improved from 200 to 100 days in some labs, he says. With interagency communication and prioritization, some cases are turned around in one, two or three days, he adds.

     Tracking screening time separately from analysis time, Marion County screens its potential evidence items in three days and gets them back from FDLE in 52 or 53 days on average, Sowder reports.

     When the Seminole County Sheriff's Office previously submitted DNA to FDLE, the turnaround time was one year to 18 months. By doing their own screening and meeting FDLE protocol and standards, Seminole County Sheriff's Office Laboratory Director Jennie Ahern says the sheriff's office received the first cases they screened back from FDLE in two months.

     The biggest benefit Nancy Rathman Davis, who is the biology unit crime lab analyst supervisor in FDLE's Orlando Regional Crime Laboratory, has observed working with Seminole County is that the line of communication between agencies has opened up.

     Even though the communication has always been there, Orlando Regional Crime Laboratory Director James McNamara says working together has really improved the communication, helping local agencies feel part of the process and part of the team.

     Davis adds, "When we're given more information about the cases, we can make more efficient judgments on how to approach a case."

     At one point, when there was a backlog of about 1,000 cases at the Orlando regional laboratory, some were six or eight months old and had already been solved but no one informed the crime lab, Davis says. FDLE began contacting every agency that submitted items to see if the case was still active. "Once we did that, then they started calling us," she says.

     While Davis has long understood the pressures she faced with as many as 150 cases from 20 different agencies at the height of the backlog (now an analyst has 40 or fewer cases), she says the pilot program with Seminole County has helped her better understand the pressures facing local law enforcement — and vice versa. In Marion County, Sowder says, "Our people are more DNA-minded now when they're working crime scenes."

     Sowder, who previously worked child sex crimes, wishes he could have had DNA screening available to add credibility to a child's testimony (or confirm that something has happened when a child is too young to testify). He says he could have gotten perpetrators off the street quicker and stopped the abuse sooner. Having test results that show the presence of blood or semen at a crime scene can provide enough probable cause for an investigator to make an arrest. Or, these results could lead to a confession — before DNA analysis is even performed.

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