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Lab backlog dooms 200 assault cases

The deadlines for prosecution expire before the LAPD can test DNA evidence from the victims.

October 21, 2008|Richard Winton | Winton is a Times staff writer.

As many as 200 potential sexual assault cases have gone without prosecution because Los Angeles police officials failed to meet legal deadlines to test DNA evidence that might have identified a suspect, according to a city audit released Monday.

The audit was the second critical assessment of LAPD forensic work in as many weeks. A confidential report obtained by The Times last week disclosed shoddy work by the department's fingerprint experts that had falsely implicated people in crimes.

Chief William J. Bratton said late Monday that he had set up a task force to examine the Scientific Investigations Division, which oversees the department's fingerprint analysis unit and DNA lab. He said he had asked the FBI and Los Angeles County district attorney's office to join the task force probe.

"You hired me as chief of police to manage the department day to day. But you also hired me for when a crisis occurs and they will occur," Bratton said. "When it occurs, the idea is to quickly get in and assess what is wrong."

According to the audit by City Controller Laura Chick's office, the LAPD has a backlog of 7,000 sexual assault test kits that have not been examined. Of those cases, 217 are beyond the 10-year statute in which to prosecute the crimes, according to the report.

Each kit, officials say, contains a potential genetic road map to the perpetrator of a crime.

"Sometimes I find problems as city controller that simply defy explanation," Chick said at a news conference. "It is beyond disturbing that the thousands of victims who have undergone the invasive ordeal of [submitting to] these tests do not even know that their evidence is still untested."

Unlike the Hollywood portrayal of high-tech crime fighting on police shows such as "Law & Order" and "CSI," Chick said the LAPD's ability to analyze evidence seemed "stuck in an era of Wyatt Earp."

The LAPD has been repeatedly criticized for its huge backlog of untested DNA evidence, but officials have said that they lacked the money to move faster on the cases. Bratton said his department needed more staff and at least $7 million to address the backlog.

"What happened here is there are not enough people in the crime lab to do the work," Bratton said. "We got the City Council to authorize 16 additional people, but they did not fund it."

Bratton said he was so frustrated that he turned to the Los Angeles Police Foundation to raise private funds. So far $1.5 million has been raised.

Now, Bratton said, the unit that tests the kits is working at maximum capacity and is able to keep up only with the new cases and ones that must be processed because the statute of limitations is close to expiring.

Chick's report found that the LAPD's logjam continued to worsen even though the department had received nearly $4 million in grants in recent years to address the problem.

Auditors also found that the LAPD was failing to comply with a state law that requires sexual assault victims to be notified by the police if their rape kits are not tested within a two-year period. Bratton said such failures would be among the issues that the task force would take up. If authorities had made those notifications the statute of limitations would have been extended.

LAPD officials acknowledged that some kits were beyond the legal deadline, but said it was possible that some of those cases had been prosecuted using other evidence. They added that some of the stored DNA evidence may be tied to crimes other than sexual assault.

"It's not something we're proud of," Bratton said of the backlog.

In addition to forming the task force, the chief said he has ordered a reorganization of the department to move the Scientific Investigations Division -- which includes the crime lab -- into the detectives' bureau where it would be more integrated with the investigative functions. The division had been part of an administrative bureau, he said.

The problem of untested DNA evidence is not unique to the LAPD. Forensic labs throughout the nation have been swamped by demands, not only from regular investigators but also from "cold hit" squads seeking breaks in long-dormant cases and from convicts with claims of innocence. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, more than 500,000 unsolved crimes, including 169,000 rapes, have untested DNA evidence.

In Los Angeles County, the backlog has occasionally caused trial dates to be canceled, frustrated detectives, and delayed justice for victims and their families. In one case, an evidence kit that went untested for months left a suspected rapist free to allegedly assault another victim.

Sarah Tofte, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has been studying the DNA testing backlog at police agencies, said Chick's audit was the latest example of shortcomings in the LAPD's management of sexual assault kits. She said the LAPD earlier this year had lost some federal funds because it had moved too slowly to fix the backlog.

"Why add to the suffering of rape victims by making them wait years to investigate and prosecute their cases -- or letting a prosecution go forward without this evidence?" she said.

Councilman Jack Weiss, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, called the audit findings "heartbreaking."

"It is literally criminal," said Weiss, who wants the department to hire more lab workers. "The department needs to understand that scientists are just as important as officers."

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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