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L.A. County Sheriff's Department suspends DNA testing in sexual assault cases

For now, there are no funds to pay for analysis at private crime labs, according to a report by Sheriff Lee Baca. Federal grants expected next month may improve the situation.

June 23, 2009|Joel Rubin and Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Out of cash and understaffed, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has suspended its faltering effort to analyze DNA evidence from thousands of rape and sexual assault cases.

The department halted shipments of the genetic evidence to private crime laboratories at the end of May after funds allotted for the testing ran dry, according to a report submitted by Sheriff Lee Baca to the county Board of Supervisors late last week.

Sheriff's Department officials said they expected to receive federal grant money next month, and more funds in the fall, that would allow them to continue testing for four or five months. After that, however, the department will have to rely on an uncertain stream of state funding, officials said.

The haphazard approach underscores the trouble Baca has had delivering on a promise he made in November to clear the decades-old backlog of evidence from roughly 4,600 cases and to keep pace with testing evidence from all new cases. Late Monday afternoon, a spokesman for Baca said that Marshall University in West Virginia had agreed to do a small amount of testing for free each month, adding to the sense that the Sheriff's Department is scrambling to find help anywhere it can.

To date, the department has sent evidence from 676 cases to outside labs, according to the report. About three-quarters of those were not dispatched until recently and have not yet been processed, department officials said. Moreover, though testing has produced usable results in 98 cases so far, the genetic profiles of the suspected attackers in only six of the cases have been compared with state databases. The rest are awaiting a final review by the Sheriff Department's in-house laboratory. In one of those six cases, the alleged attacker was identified, raising the likelihood that the answers to several other rapes and sex crimes lie in the department's untested evidence.

"The lab must be given the resources it needs to do this work," said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "There are rapists walking the streets of Los Angeles, who, if they tested evidence that is sitting on shelves, could be taken off."

Because of funding problems, the amount of untested evidence has actually grown. Sheriff's officials said the department's lab cannot keep up with the more than 330 new sexual assault cases and the preparation and review work that must be completed on outsourced evidence kits.

Victims of sexual assault are taken to medical specialists who swab their bodies for sperm, saliva or other genetic samples left by the attacker. The evidence, packaged in so-called sexual assault kits, hold potentially crucial information. DNA analysts can extract a person's genetic code from the collected samples and compare it with the DNA profiles of known felons in state and federal databases. When the DNA sample matches a DNA profile in the database, it can offer prosecutors nearly irrefutable proof of the person's guilt. The evidence can also be used to confirm that someone has not falsely confessed to a crime or to link someone to other unsolved cases.

Since the advent of DNA testing, however, the Sheriff's Department -- as well as the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies -- had followed a policy of testing evidence only when such a request was made by detectives working the case. Late last year, under pressure from watchdog groups and politicians, Baca and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton changed course, saying they would test all the evidence kits. Inventories of the backlogged cases in both departments revealed that evidence had gone untested in hundreds of cases in which detectives had no other leads and could have possibly benefited from the DNA analysis. Dozens of those cases were found to be too old for prosecutors to pursue under the statute of limitations.

LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said his department is continuing to outsource evidence from old cases at a rate of about 115 a week and has the funding to continue doing so for most of the next fiscal year.

But L.A. County is hardly alone in its predicament. A state legislative budget committee recently recommended that funding for the California Department of Justice lab be slashed by $20 million next fiscal year -- a move that, if approved by lawmakers, would force the lab to stop providing free DNA testing to 47 of the state's 53 county governments.

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