News 12.07.09

DNA Backlogs Build Across the U.S.

DNA testing has been suspended for over a month in New Mexico’s State Police crime lab after the state’s forensic accreditation lapsed at the end of October, and a backlog is building up. Officials reported recently that the lab is 124 cases behind and that at least two cases will have passed court deadlines before accreditation can be renewed, which could happen as soon as this week.

"This could be a blow to every district attorney's office across New Mexico, as well as law enforcement," Lemuel Martinez, a district attorney in New Mexico,

told the Albuquerque Journal

. "To not have that service readily available will really be terrible for the entire criminal justice system. I just hope no cases fall through the cracks."

We’ve reported in recent weeks that

backups in labs across the country have left critical evidence, including rape kits, untested nationwide in thousands of cases

.

And budget shortfalls mean that some departments rule out testing in entire categories of crimes. Although DNA testing has been used increasingly in burglary cases in recent years, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt

told the Houston Chronicle on Friday

that he can’t get funding to expand the use of DNA tests in burglary investigations. Burglaries are up 4.4 percent in Houston this year, with 21,212 break-ins through September.

It would cost $8 million to upgrade the current HPD crime lab to process DNA evidence from non-violent offenses in addition to violent crimes, Hurtt estimated….

“I'm so frustrated with this whole process,” Hurtt said Friday. “We find a problem, we find a solution, and … everybody says, ‘This is important. We have to do it.' However, it doesn't seem to be a priority. And we're not going to be able to do this for free.”

Even when testing is eventually conducted, lab backlogs can delay arrests for violent crimes and delay the slow investigations that eventually clear innocent suspects.

A Massachusetts man recently spent five months in jail before DNA tests proved he didn’t commit the crime he had been charged with — and he was freed. Another man was recently charged with a 2003 sexual assault based on evidence collected in 2005, but not tested until this year.

Despite this, Massachusetts officials

announced last week

that are not focused on eliminating the state’s backlog of 16,000 cases.

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