Monday, March 22, 2010

San Diego Police Dodge a DNA bullet

San Diego Police Department dodged a potentially explosive public relations bullet when it was determined that John Gardner’s DNA was not found on the swab taken from a female “robbery” victim, Candice Moncayo, who was assaulted on December 27, 2009 in Rancho Bernardo Community Park following the homicide of Chelsea King last month.

Local law enforcement agencies failed to test the DNA swab taken from the jogger for more than two months between the December 27 incident and the weekend that Chelsea King went missing.

The SDPD brass must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the DNA test came back negative.

“Had John Gardner’s DNA been found on the swab taken on December 27, it could have been matched to his profile in the National DNA database and Gardner may have been arrested for the “robbery” which could have prevented the murder of Chelsea King,” authorities said.

Several attempts have been made to determine the DNA backlog in San Diego County Crime Laboratory for this story, only to be denied by San Diego Sheriff’s officials. The Sheriff’s Department claims there are no records readily available to provide documents on the DNA backlog San Diego County.

However, a document recovered from the County of Supervisors office paints a different story. The Sheriff’s Department applied for a Federal Stimulus grant to alleviate the DNA backlog on December 5, 2009, according to the public records.

The nearly $400,000 in federal grant money received from the Department of Justice is to be used for equipment, supplies and overtime expenses to alleviate the current DNA backlog.

Why the reluctance to release DNA data?

Crime labs continue to fall behind due to a number of new laws enacted by states to protect the public at large. In California, records found the backlog at the state crime lab jumped from 35,000 in January of 2008 and almost 46,000 in February 2009 records.

Even President Obama has weighed in on mandatory DNA testing as a way to solve cold cases and protecting the public. “It’s the right thing to do to tighten the grip around folks who commit crime,” Obama told John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted.

Obama told Walsh he supported compulsory DNA sampling of suspects under arrest by the federal government for misdemeanors and felonies. The results would be housed in the state and federal databases. There have been more than 200 arrests nationwide using the results from those DNA tests.

Meanwhile in liberal California the ACLU is suing to block its voter-approved measure requiring saliva sampling of criminals picked-up for felonies. Authorities in the Sunshine State are allowed to conduct so-called “familial searching” which means law enforcement can look to other familiar DNA results to find the possible perpetrators.

The ACLU is likely to lose their case because courts have already upheld DNA sampling of convicted felons, based the theory on the fact that convicted criminals have fewer privacy rights.

Victims across the country waiting for justice

It’s not uncommon for victims to go years without justice. Before DNA testing began it was not unlikely that crimes would go unsolved forever. Alas DNA testing has emerged and technology can now solve new and cold cases alike.

The Connecticut Courant tells such a story about Kellie Greene who spent three years living in fear, waiting for authorities to catch the criminal who raped her.

The lack of urgency ultimately turned to bewilderment over the bureaucratic quagmire that continues to put women at risk of violence.

Green found there was a three-year wait for the crime lab to test the DNA evidence that her attacker left on her leggings. Once the DNA results finally came back, Greene was horrified to learn this was not the first rape the criminal had committed.

The three-year DNA backlog allowed the perpetrator to continue violating other women, one of whom was Greene.

"Had they been able to test the DNA in that earlier case, my rape would have never happened," she said.
It’s been 15 years since Greene began her campaign to speed-up DNA testing and erase DNA backlogs.

Currently, there are more than 350,000 DNA samples for murder, rape and sexually abused children waiting to be tested. According to the federal government's best estimates many of these DNA samples remain on the shelves. In 2005 alone labs across the country saw their DNA backlogs nearly double.

The flood of DNA samples has created logjams

The biggest known backlog is in Los Angeles County, where more than 12,000 rape kits remain untested. These kits include envelopes with blood and semen collected from rape victims. In fact, most of these kits remain in police department storage units.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, there is evidence that 500 cases involving adult victims has been backlogged so long that the 10-year time limit for prosecution has already passed.

"This is a betrayal of victims; it's a betrayal of the public trust," said Gail Abarbanel, who heads the rape treatment program at the UCLA Medical Center.

Close to half of the 1,000 kits collected at the UCLA center each year are from child victims ranging from 4 months to 17 years old. She admitted that prosecutors must postpone trials because there are so many DNA kits waiting to be tested.

Many of these serial offenders use the delays in DNA testing to seek out more victims. In a recent Justice Department report, 16 percent of state crime labs claim their backlogs have allowed additional crimes to be committed.

California’s Department of Justice lab has the largest DNA backlogs of any state. The backlog spiked once Proposition 69, which mandates DNA collection from arrestees, went into effect in January 2009.

A spokesman from California’s Department of Justice explains the state has approximately 30,000 samples classified as “in process.” The landslide of samples in the state has led to the uptick in hiring more scientists. However the DOJ says they may need to outsource samples to private labs. At this point the state lab has yet to set a target date for reducing the amount of unprocessed evidence.

DNA testing in San Diego solves cold cases

Meanwhile an example of the success of DNA testing in San Diego came when prosecutors were able to solve a 1993 murder case.

The gruesome crime involved two young boys in San Diego who were abducted near the Otay River, raped and killed. It took homicide detectives eight years until a DNA hit linked them to a man named Scott Erskine.
Erskine’s trial began in 2004 and it took prosecutors a few weeks before opening statements to inform the family of the grisly nature of the murders. After an 8-year wait, the defendant, Erskine, stood trial and now resides on death row.

CBS News is reporting that the San Diego Police Department has more than 2,000 untested rape kits in storage.

“The San Diego Police Department has a remarkably good sex crimes unit, so if there’s any chance that testing a kit could lead to a successful prosecution then we test it,” said Michael Grubb, San Diego PD Crime Lab Manager. According to Grubb, “the department has 2,065 rape kits in storage that were never sent to the crime lab.”

"The news of untested rape kits in San Diego is more evidence that the rape kit backlog is a widespread problem across the country that requires a strong national response,” said Sarah Tofte researcher at Human Rights Watch's US Program. “Untested rape kits mean lost justice for rape victims, and San Diego must move quickly to eliminate their backlog,” she said.

The question remains why are there so many backlog DNA samples sitting on shelves across the country waiting to be tested? Crimes throughout the country have been solved because detectives have obtained DNA samples from victims or the crime scene.

With state labs requesting and receiving grants from the federal government to conduct more DNA testing why do the backlogs remain? And could the speediness of scientific labs prevent new crimes from taking place?

Nowhere is this more evident than details surrounding the murdered teenager Chelsea King. After the attack of a female jogger in the same park two months prior, law enforcement officers obtained a DNA swab from the victim, however it went untested until King’s murder.

The moral of the story is no stone should be left unturned when investigating crimes and justice delayed often results in justice denied.

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