Cold hits

In Missouri, the Kansas City Police Department’s (KCPD’s) cold case squad and crime laboratory, with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, form a winning team. All three have been awarded National Institute of Justice DNA grants. Since January 2008 (the first of the three years that the KCPD Sex Crimes Cold Case Squad received NIJ Solving Cold Cases with DNA grant funding), the team has gotten more than 150 CODIS hits, exceptionally cleared more than 100 cases and issued more than 50 charges.

Capt. Mark Folsom, commander of the KCPD Special Victims Unit, says the Sex Crimes Cold Case Squad, which was restructured under the Violent Crimes Cold Case Squad in March, has an exemplary working relationship with the crime laboratory and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. Going back to 2000, about 115 cold cases, including homicides and sexual assaults, have since been prosecuted to conviction and represent a 96-percent conviction rate, says Ted Hunt, chief trial attorney in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.

A case in point: Charging the Waldo rapist

In May 2010, teamwork and DNA evidence helped Jackson County charge Bernard Jackson with 15 felonies from four rapes in 1983 and 1984, in the Waldo and Armour Hills areas of Kansas City. At the time, KCPD was investigating Jackson as a person of interest in five similar sexual assault cases taking place in the Waldo area in 2009 and 2010. Preliminary reports from the 1980s were pulled, along with evidence from the property room and the laboratory’s long-term storage freezer. In the time span of a Friday afternoon to Monday morning, criminalists found a matching profile.

“That kind of communication and quick action, and the willingness of the lab to drop everything and work throughout the weekend to solve the case, enhanced our ability to charge the suspect quickly and get him off the street,” Hunt says.

The alleged serial rapist had been arrested and convicted after a 1984 burglary and rape, spent time in prison, was released in 2008, and allegedly again started a pattern of crime.

Folsom, who led the Waldo rapist investigation task force, says the crime laboratory team was a huge help, particularly those working in DNA and Trace Evidence who had to prioritize which of the thousands of items would be analyzed first. In October 2011, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office charged Jackson with 22 felonies for two of the five cases from 2009 to 2010.

Making the case for a police department crime laboratory

Folsom believes having the 72-member crime laboratory within the police department is advantageous. That goes against a recommendation of “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” a report sponsored by the NIJ and released by the National Research Council in 2009. The congressionally mandated report says that to ensure the efficacy of the work done by forensic scientists and other practitioners in the field, public forensic science laboratories should be made independent from or autonomous within police departments and prosecutor’s offices.

Linda Netzel, director of the KCPD crime laboratory since 2005, agrees with most of the report but argues having a police department crime lab can lead to successful outcomes. Netzel says, “One of the things that I think has been key to our success of being a high-quality lab has been our close attachment to crime scenes.”

The KCPD’s dedicated crime scene unit is part of the crime laboratory. Criminalists receive crime scene training and can be called out of the lab to provide technical advice. KCPD criminalists are certified by the American Board of Criminalistics. Some disciplines have their own certifying bodies. The Association of Firearms and Tool Mark Examiners certifies tool mark examiners, and the International Association for Identification certifies crime scene and fingerprint disciplines. All testifying members of the KCPD crime lab are required to obtain certification at certain times in their career, says Netzel. The crime lab itself is accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.

Following the philosophy of her predecessors, Netzel says the crime laboratory functions independently from its law enforcement side, yet maintains a tight relationship with KCPD units and the more than 210 agencies the crime laboratory has served.

“We report the facts and conclusions based on our testing and analysis,” she says, noting a request for analysis must be made with a good investigative reason.

Intra-agency and interagency collaboration

Hunt points out those working in the crime laboratory realize there are other stakeholders in the product they produce. Collaboration forged by long-standing criminal justice professionals is one of the intangibles that Hunt says makes the KCPD crime laboratory a great one. “We work directly with the lab and the prosecutor’s office, and we review cases before we submit samples to the lab for analysis,” Folsom describes. “By working together, we save time and money.” The crime laboratory isn’t spending time on cases that victims decided they didn’t want prosecuted or cases that have already been adjudicated.

Hunt says there often seems to be a lot of interagency consternation across the country.

“The bickering happens a lot in jurisdictions where each agency insists on strict and intractable roles,” he says. “We cross those lines, and I think that’s what makes us successful. Prosecutors investigate just as police do. We need the police after a case is filed. The police need us before a case is filed. We both need the lab before and after a case is filed. There is inherent overlap in all of our jobs.”

Constant communication

To collaborate, Hunt says agencies need to develop a relationship with one another.

“Interagency relationships are no different than personal relationships,” he says. “If you don’t talk, you’re going to get estranged, you’re going to lose contact, you’re going to lose interest. Even when times are tough and you’re not getting along, you’ve got to keep talking.” Folsom says sex crimes detectives call or e-mail the DNA section quite often. In meetings held twice a month, the violent cold case squad, the prosecutor’s office and crime laboratory discuss the latest CODIS hits and case strategy. While some jurisdictions may test first and ask questions later, Hunt says in his jurisdiction, the prosecutor’s office approves or disapproves cold cases for testing before they’re sent to the crime laboratory. Once the crime laboratory tests the samples and gets cold hits, criminalists enter the case information, and e-mail notifications are sent out saying a case has been filed through the Cold Hit Outcome Project (CHOP) system, which they’re testing for NIJ and the National District Attorneys Association.

Communications also are sent out through the crime laboratory’s customized Forensic Advantage LIMS from The Computer Solution Co., which went online in July 2010.

Continual improvement

A few years ago, KCPD, the crime laboratory, the prosecutor’s office and others participated in an NIJ project focused on improving communications skills and streamlining procedures.

“I think it’s important that we all anticipate problems,” Hunt says. “We are one legal entity in the eyes of the courts.” Crime laboratory staff recently went through Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) training. Netzel says she’s never felt that adding more people would completely solve a problem. “I think there is a need to have more people in the laboratory, but there’s also a need for laboratory managers to help the staff focus on how we can improve our systems, how we can do this job more efficiently,” Netzel explains.

The demand for DNA

Requests for analysis can change. While KCPD has seen a decrease in DNA requests for violent crimes, Netzel says in the last four years or so, DNA submissions from property crimes and drug crimes have dramatically increased. When a DNA profile is developed but unmatched to a name in burglary cases, Jackson County prosecutors file a John Doe warrant prior to the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations.

About 55,000 DNA samples are stored in the lab today. Given the small size of a DNA swab, storage isn’t a big problem. Netzel estimates the crime laboratory has room to store two to three more years worth of DNA samples before the maximum freezer storage capacity has been reached. By then, the crime laboratory is expected to move into a new laboratory, funded with a 25-cent sales tax increase.

To specifically address the backlog of sex crimes, Folsom estimates two to three years of work remain. The former Sex Crimes Cold Case Squad was not among those named as grant recipients in 2010, but Folsom says KCPD remains hopeful and has again applied for funding.

So far, he says: “I’m proud of the job we’ve done here.”

 

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

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