Making the Case for "Genetic Justice"

Outsourcing to private DNA laboratories may be the answer

Several years ago, the Virginia legislature dedicated $9 million to eliminating the state's DNA backlog of more than 200,000 samples in three years time. "We didn't have the man power or facilities at that point to run all those samples," says Marone. "Now we have sufficient staff and facilities to handle all the DNA database samples as they are coming through our door."

There is a Catch 22 with outsourcing offender backlog DNA samples. It has reduced the testing backlogs, but created CODIS entry backlogs.

"By being accredited, all of your information is now eligible for CODIS, but no private laboratory in the country has direct access to this database," explains Kern. "Essentially, we are creating redundancy. We're doing analysis and qualifying the samples saying they are eligible, but then the samples have to go back to the agency to be requalified."

In Marone's outsourcing experience, the state analysts had to verify every sample and review all data before it went into CODIS. "To get to the last point of pushing the button was a lot of work," he says.

According to Kern, some public labs have approached the FBI with the idea of allowing private labs to input DNA profiles directly into CODIS, but this has yet to happen. "If this were to happen, it would greatly reduce the burden on the governmental lab system and allow for greater in-house backlog reduction," he says. "Public labs would be spending less time entering CODIS profiles into the database and more time working samples."

Greater capabilities
The primary benefit of utilizing a private lab is the speed in which it can process the evidence. Kern estimates that many state labs are working with a six-month turnaround rate, and Marbaker estimates his lab is eight months behind in routine DNA work.

"It's not uncommon for a local police agency that does not have a laboratory to use a private lab because they could get the results back quicker than from their state laboratory," says Ralph Keaton, executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB).

Each private lab has its own processing times. Human Identification Technologies, a private forensic DNA testing and consulting laboratory located in Redlands, California, has a standard time frame of 20 business days, with as little as three business days for rush service. Tim Kupferschmid, forensics laboratory director for Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City, Utah, says that every 60 days his lab has a complete turn over of its case load.

Why can private labs achieve these compressed output rates? "A private laboratory is not constrained by governmental budgets that allocate positions to do the work," answers Keaton. A private lab can quickly hire personnel as the demand arises. According to Marbaker, it can take a couple years to get an individual hired and trained to where he is a fully productive DNA analyst in the public system.

But Kupferschmid cautions that even private labs can fall into the same traps as public labs and have backlogs. "If a private lab has accepted too much casework and hasn't been able to keep pace with it, then you should find another lab," he says.

Another advantage to private labs is they can provide capabilities that many public labs may not, such as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing and paternity testing.

There are three basic types of forensic DNA analysis: STR (short tandem repeat), Y-STR (STRs that occur on the male chromosome) and mtDNA. In layman's terms, STRs are repeats in the DNA pattern, with each person having different length repeats, these are individualized. Both STR and Y-STR involve extracting nuclear DNA from biological materials such as blood, semen, saliva and tissue.

When forensic cases arise where there is insufficient biological material for nuclear DNA typing, mtDNA analysis can provide valuable supplemental information, even from such limited samples as a 1/2-centimeter-long hair fragment or single tooth.

Paternity testing also is a specialized capability many public labs do not offer. "The testing is very similar, but the statistical interpretation is completely different and usually requires a different specialty," explains Marbaker.

A unique contributing factor to the DNA backlog where private labs can be of great assistance is post-conviction testing, often requested by advocacy groups and defense attorneys.

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