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L.A. County sheriff moves to clear backlog of untested DNA evidence

Prodded by a county supervisor, Baca agrees to reshuffle his budget to pay for six additional analysts in his understaffed crime lab and to continue to outsource untested evidence to private labs.

September 03, 2009|Joel Rubin

Under pressure from a Los Angeles County supervisor, Sheriff Lee Baca has agreed to allocate $3 million from his department's already battered budget to help clear a yawning backlog of untested DNA evidence collected after rapes and sexual assaults.

The funds will jump-start what has been an uneven effort by the Sheriff's Department over the last several months to deal with unanalyzed samples of blood, semen and other genetic material from nearly 4,700 cases that have long languished in storage freezers.

After the revelation earlier this summer that the department had run out of federal grant funds earmarked for the DNA tests and suspended testing for a month, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called Baca last month and asked to meet with him to discuss the issue, Yaroslavsky said in an interview.

"We were at a logjam," Yaroslavsky said. "It was a priority for the sheriff, but the testing was happening in fits and starts. We needed to have a strategy where we could move forward and identify these rapists who are walking the streets."

The two hammered out a spending plan that calls for Baca to reshuffle the agency's roughly $2.4-billion budget in order to free up the $3 million this fiscal year. Most of the money will be used to continue to outsource untested evidence to private laboratories, while $700,000 will pay for six additional analysts in the department's own crime lab. The understaffed lab has struggled to keep pace with the constant influx of new cases.

Steve Whitmore, Baca's spokesman, said the sheriff will decide in the coming weeks how to cobble together the funds. Faced with a huge budget shortfall, Baca already has been forced to eliminate dozens of positions in the department and has said he might have to close county jail facilities if forced to make more cuts.

In the next fiscal year, the plan calls for the county to find another $3 million from elsewhere in its $20-billion budget in order to continue the outsourcing and to add additional people to the crime lab if more staffers are needed.

If that happens, sheriff's officials said they were confident they would have enough funds to test evidence from the remaining backlog of 4,071 old cases in two years while also keeping pace with new cases.

Yaroslavsky said he was confident that other members of the Board of Supervisors would approve of the plan when it is presented at a meeting later this month.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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