Reducing the DNA backlog

Florida involves local law enforcement to prescreen evidence


Opening a screening lab

     Looking at the benefits gained so far, other county agencies might think about setting up their own screening lab, but agencies need to be aware there's more work to setting up a screening lab than changing a sign on a door. A screening laboratory is a forensic laboratory for which there are strict requirements to prevent evidence contamination, and much of the work in setting up a lab is getting the personnel trained and ready.

     To ensure that efforts were coordinated between agencies, the first step Marion County and FDLE took was to establish a memorandum of understanding outlining the expectations required of each agency.

     FDLE worked hand in hand with the Marion County Sheriff's Office in training their three DNA screening technicians and helping them put together their lab, procedures and training manuals, says Scott.

     After training with FDLE for two weeks at the NFSTC (training was funded by the National Institute of Justice), Marion County screening technicians continued their training for five weeks at FDLE's Jacksonville Regional Crime Laboratory. When that training concluded, FDLE analysts worked with Marion County screening technicians for 13 weeks in their lab, and the DNA screening technicians finished that training with an oral board and mock trial.

     "Everything we do mimics the FDLE right down to lab procedures, equipment and paperwork," Sowder says. "They know when they get a report from us, it's just as if one of their techs did it."

     Marion County DNA screening technicians were hired specifically to examine items for biological fluids including blood, semen and saliva, (and eventually hair); to issue reports confirming their presence (which are sent to the FDLE and state attorney's office); and to collect the samples for DNA testing. The entire screening process is hands-on, with no automation. In addition to handling 12 to 15 cases per month on average, the DNA screening technicians work on about three cold cases (total) per month. Over an 18-month time span, Marion County is rescreening all of its cold cases through a $170,000 grant awarded last year.

     In Seminole County, two crime scene analysts work the crime scene, screen evidence for blood and semen in the screening lab, and issue reports just as Marion County does. Seminole County screeners also received training from the NFSTC and FDLE but worked with the FDLE's Orlando Regional Crime Laboratory, where they trained for about nine months. Their training was spread out over a longer time due to unexpected obstacles in getting their laboratory built, and the training had to fit around the screeners' responsibilities as crime scene analytics. Ahern, working with FDLE, wrote operating procedures, and the lab opened in December 2007. Since then, the lab has averaged four cases per month. Recently, Seminole County started permitting its seven police departments to submit evidence for screening.

     Both Ahern and Sowder agree a screening lab requires at least two people. An ASCLD/LAB (American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board) inspector, Ahern says having two scientists in the lab is necessary so that one can work the case and the second can review the case file to ensure the findings are accurate and do not omit critical information. Sowder adds vacations and court time also make having only one person ineffective.

     Because the screeners at the two sheriff's offices do presumptive and confirmatory testing, they must meet the same background and educational requirements (a bachelor's degree in a basic natural science) required by FDLE. While Seminole County uses crime scene analysts to staff its lab, Ahern points out that not every crime scene analyst would have the scientific background necessary to work in a laboratory.

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