A few years ago, the Virginia lab was contacted by the Innocence Project, looking to test DNA evidence in a case that was processed previous to the advent of this technology. In this instance, and a couple others, the original offender was exonerated. Because of these exonerations, the then-governor Mark Warner directed the crime lab to process 10 percent of the applicable, previously closed cases for DNA evidence. The governor directed these samples to private labs because he did not want to impact the present-day casework of the government labs.
The bottom line
Although private labs offer several tempting benefits, they do not come free. The greatest objection to contracting independent labs is the cost. Grant funding is available to subsidize outsourcing, but in general only public laboratories have access to these funds. (See "Millions for the asking" on Page 87.) If an individual police department should choose to bypass its local or state crime lab and hire an independent lab to process DNA, the cost would come out of pocket.
In addition, Marbaker cautions public laboratories not to dedicate all their funding to outsourcing. "Outsourcing doesn't do anything to enhance the infrastructure. It doesn't solve the problem," he says. "It makes some of the symptoms go away for a while, but it doesn't get at the root problem which is you don't have enough resources to do your job."
The right questions
Once deciding to hire a private lab, there are several qualities to look for — No. 1 being accreditation.
"Accreditation gives you a certain threshold of confidence to know they are handling the evidence correctly, have all the correct quality checks in place and are meeting certain standards," says Marone, who is the ASCLD/LAB representative for the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations.
There are two accrediting bodies in the United States: ASCLD/LAB and Forensic Quality Services (FQS). Any lab accredited by ASCLD/LAB or FQS also meets the FBI's standards for forensic DNA testing labs, allowing the DNA they test to be submitted into CODIS.
Because one of the key advantages to outsourcing to a private lab is the reduced turnaround time, a department should inquire as to the time needed for a rush case and also standard processing rates. "The laboratory has to be able to meet your needs in your time frame," notes Marone.
Location also can be a consideration. "Since we knew we were going to have an inordinate number of samples, we wanted somebody within the state that we could literally drive back and forth to," says Marone.
Many private labs employ analysts that once worked at public labs, and in Kupferschmid's opinion, "It is very important that an independent, private lab have public lab experience, because the issues that public labs face are completely foreign in the private sector." Private labs have fewer competing events for their time and do not have the legislative hurdles to deal with.
Public lab experience also means that these analysts are better able to help investigators narrow the focus on what they need to test. "We can extract DNA from nearly anything these days, but unless we have a good working relationship with the investigator and know what questions to ask the investigator, it's not really going to help him," says Kupferschmid, a former public analyst in Maine before moving to the private sector.
"Most of the private laboratories out there today are doing very good quality work," praises Keaton.
Working together, private and governmental labs can reduce the DNA backlog and maximize DNA's crime-fighting capabilities. "Let's face it; it's all about justice," says Kern. "Our focus is putting out a high-quality product and then offering a turnaround time that really makes for efficient 'Genetic Justice.' "