Last week, a U.S. Senate committee examined the effectiveness of a 2004 law in supporting crime labs across the country. Experts testified that while some progress has been made, significant hurdles remain to helping the nation’s forensic system function more effectively.
One goal of the federal 2004 Innocence Protection Act was to provide funding to allow crime labs to conduct post-conviction DNA tests that can exonerate the innocent and to reduce backlogs of untested evidence. When evidence from cold and unsolved cases goes without testing, perpetrators of crime sometimes manage to avoid capture.
Pat Lykos, the district attorney for Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Houston Police Department Crime Lab has more than 5,000 untested rape kits in its backlog.
"Felons go undetected and undeterred because reliable forensic capabilities are either scarce or unavailable to the criminal justice system,"
And this problem doesn’t only affect Houston.
published by CBS News last week found thousands of rape kits untested in jurisdictions across the country. Fourteen percent of open murder cases and 18 percent of open rape cases have forensic evidence that has not been sent to crime labs for testing, according to
a report prepared for the U.S. Office of Justice Programs
Proposed improvements to the 2004 law would increase the number of lab technicians across the country and require labs to report their backlogs to the federal government. A
New York Times editorial
last week urged Congress to strengthen the law, calling untested evidence “a huge insult to rape victims.”
Backlogs and untested evidence can also lead to wrongful convictions – when a piece of evidence that could potentially determine the identity of a perpetrator isn’t tested, the chances of an innocent person being implicated are higher. Backlogs and cutbacks can also stand in the way of tests on evidence that can free the innocent from prison.
Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director Keith Findley, who is the President of the Innocence Network, testified before the Senate panel that funds earmarked in 2004 for DNA testing in post-conviction appeals didn’t start flowing to states until last year. Better procedures are needed to fund and expedite post-conviction DNA testing, Findley said, and law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to preserve biological evidence collected in criminal cases.
Fewer than half of police departments nationwide
(43 percent) have computerized systems to track inventory of forensic evidence.