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Slow pace of DNA processing examined

LAPD has a backlog of more than 5,000 rape kits. Officials are pushing to increase staff.

January 11, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Los Angeles Police Department has a logjam of more than 5,000 rape kits that have not undergone forensic analysis because of a lack of DNA-testing resources, a leading advocate for rape victims told a state commission Wednesday.

"Every day, there are citizens in our state ... who are being sexually assaulted and otherwise victimized when they don't have to be. This is happening because our state and local laboratories lack the resources they need to utilize the forensic science of DNA effectively," said Gale Abarbanel, director of the Santa Monica-UCLA Rape Treatment Center.

Yvette Sanchez-Owens, the commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's crime lab, acknowledged that analysis has started on only 3,500 of the 9,000 kits logged by the LAPD.

Although some kits do not require immediate analysis, many more go untouched because of resource shortfalls, she said.

"There are times where they know the suspect already has confessed, so there is no need to process the kit," Sanchez-Owens said. "In a perfect world, we would like to test every sample. But our reality is we don't have the resources to get there."

L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former prosecutor who heads the council's Public Safety Committee, said he agreed that the department's DNA testing capacity had to be expanded.

Sanchez-Owens said the department has sent a budget to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that would more than double the size of the LAPD's DNA staff from 29 to 71 over a two-year period.

"I've been pushing on both fronts," Weiss said. "The LAPD needs to expand its DNA testing capabilities, and the state needs to accelerate [its] testing."

Last September, The Times reported that two years after California set out to create a DNA database to help unravel thousands of unsolved crimes, the program had a backlog of 300,000 unprocessed DNA samples, attributable in large measure to a lack of staff.

Lance Gima, chief of the Bureau of Forensic Services at the California Department of Justice, said Wednesday that the backlog has been reduced to 175,000 because his staff has been putting in a tremendous amount of overtime. Gima said he has hired 20 new staffers but that it takes many months to train them and that he still has 14 vacancies.

He said it's difficult to hire and retain employees, in large part because state salaries are much lower than those at local crime laboratories. For example, Gima said he could offer a starting salary of only $3,100 a month, compared with $4,600 in Los Angeles.

Resources, though, were not the only problem described Wednesday to the members of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which is considering reforms to address the problem of wrongful convictions.

Also expressing significant concerns were William C. Thompson, who heads UC Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law and Society, and criminal defense lawyer Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York, which has played a key role in freeing more than 190 wrongfully convicted people through the use of DNA testing.

"Many areas of forensic science are poorly validated," Thompson said. For example, he said the FBI, after using a particular method of analyzing bullets for 30 years in 2,500 cases, abandoned the practice in 2005, conceding significant doubts about its reliability.

In recent years, Thompson said similar problems have come to light in tool mark examination, fingerprint examination, bite mark analysis and gunshot residue testing. Thompson, like Neufeld, urged the creation of a state commission to oversee forensic science, but he said it was crucial that the panel not be dominated by forensic scientists trying to regulate themselves.

Barry Fisher, director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department crime lab, praised Neufeld and his colleagues at the Innocence Project for using forensics to unearth cases of "actual innocence." He said those exonerations have raised "a nagging question: Do these cases represent only a small number of the hundreds of thousands of cases prosecuted each year, or do they represent only the tip of the iceberg?"

But Fisher said he had problems with Neufeld's suggestions that there should be review of forensic failures in the same way that the National Transportation Safety Board reviews airplane and train crashes. He said the NTSB was primarily "reactive" and that a more proactive approach was needed.

"California needs a forensic science master plan," which would be "a critical first step" in determining the full scope of the problems brought before the commission Wednesday.

At the end of the four-hour hearing, commission Chairman John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general, said it was clear that the state had significant "capacity" problems on forensics issues. He said the commission would begin developing possible remedies and could have some recommendations in the next few months.

Last year, the Legislature, at the recommendation of the commission, enacted two bills -- one on eyewitness identifications and the other requiring law enforcement to record jailhouse interrogations -- but the governor vetoed both. Van de Kamp said the bills were being redrafted and would be resubmitted.

henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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