Crime

Idaho works hard to whittle down backlog at crime labs

A forensic DNA scientist uses an alternative light source to look for biological evidence.
A forensic DNA scientist uses an alternative light source to look for biological evidence. Idaho State Police

With a recent history of backlogs, delays and high employee turnover rates, the state crime lab in Boise is turning around its checkered history and speeding up processing of forensic evidence for court cases statewide.

Of the three forensic laboratories operated by the Idaho State Police, the Boise lab is the only one that processes DNA evidence, oftentimes the linchpin of homicide and rape cases.

“DNA evidence is definitive,” said Lewiston criminal defense attorney Rick Cuddihy. “It’s like a fingerprint. ... Its primary function is to identify, and that’s crucial in any investigation.”

If you send them to a private lab, you can get DNA results in one to three months. The state lab has been taking almost a year.

Criminal defense lawyer Rick Cuddihy, who noted private labs are more costly than the $500 to $1,000 per sample the state lab asks.

But too often in recent years, that crucial evidence has not been processed in a timely manner.

The lab’s goals call for completing individual DNA tests within 30 days, compared to the 242 days the lab has been averaging. As of today, 93 DNA samples have been at the Boise lab for longer than the targeted 30-day time period.

The lab also tests blood toxicology and is striving for a 45-day goal compared to the 117 days that it is taking to get results. The goal is to test latent fingerprints within 60 days, compared to the 122 days it now takes scientists.

For the past six months, the average turnaround time for biological screening tests on Ada County cases has been 79 days. DNA analysis took an average of 182 days. During the past fiscal year, the lab completed 88 biology or DNA cases for Ada County.

Four sexual assault cases from Ada County were cleared from the lab in the past three months. Those tests had been pending for more than 300 days, said Matthew Gamette, director of the Idaho state forensic labs.

The lab has seven screening cases and 20 DNA cases from Ada County that have been pending for longer than 30 days. Thirteen have been in the lab for more than 100 days.

The lab is facing an increasing number of test requests from prosecutors across the state. From July 2015 through June 2016, DNA analysis requests increased 11 percent for drug cases and 38 percent for latent fingerprints.

“Crime is increasing,” Gamette said.

22,224Pieces of evidence accepted at the three ISP labs last year

409 DNA samples logged at the Boise lab in 2015

“We do prioritize cases based on court needs and deadlines, so having an older case is not necessarily indicative that it is delaying the courts,” Gamette said.

The lab hopes that by this time next year, turnaround times will be under 30 days.

“In order to accomplish that, we need to have the people that are in training or starting training complete that training (some will take at least a year to train). We have to have newly hired experienced examiners physically get to Idaho and start working cases. We have to keep and retain all of our trained staff and keep them healthy,” Gamette said.

Having North Idaho cases sit in limbo over the past 12 months has not been unusual. In one case, police investigators sent blood evidence from a homicide scene to the Boise lab for DNA identification almost a year earlier without receiving results. In another case, the result of DNA samples collected in a rape investigation had not been returned in nine months.

Today, all those cases are completed.

We’re working on it right now. Not just from the personnel aspect, but from the efficiency perspective.

Lab director Matthew Gamette

Gamette is acutely aware of how frequent holdups at the Boise lab over the years have directly affected the timeline of felony cases across the state.

“We were getting a lot of feedback from prosecutors and judges,” Gamette said. “They have to have those results to meet speedy trial issues, so it’s not delaying them.”

Gamette and his staff have adopted new protocols at the Boise lab that include specific timelines for getting a variety of tests — including DNA — completed and results returned to the investigating agencies.

Gamette is confident that things will get better.

Part of the equation calls for additional funding, not just to hire more forensic scientists to work on a rising caseload, but to retain them.

FINDING MORE MONEY

Idaho’s three state forensic labs in Boise, Pocatello and Coeur d’Alene are part of an Idaho State Police network funded by the Legislature. Scientists who work in the labs are not police officers or affiliated with law enforcement other than in their titles as state police forensic scientists.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, sponsored a bill that helped secure additional funding for the state crime lab. The measure passed, assuring almost a quarter-million dollars to be injected into the state’s forensic labs primarily to be used to hire and retain scientists. The money will be used in part to hire two additional DNA forensic scientists.

“There is a problem keeping employment because our state pays low,” Wintrow said. “With the latest law came a budget to hire more forensic examiners to make sure we can deal with the caseload.”

At the state’s three labs, 25 full-time scientists process the bulk of the criminal evidence, including blood alcohol tests, toxicology screening, firearms and tool marks collected at crime scenes, fire debris, fingerprints as well as DNA evidence for homicide and rape investigations.

Just 12 scientists — only one certified to test DNA full-time — were vetted to work the samples, which often are the turning point in felony criminal cases that carry substantial penalties. The other 13 scientists were in training and not ready to be released to test evidence on their own, Gamette said.

“Many of them are coming off training programs this year and will start to contribute to the productivity of the lab,” he said.

The trainees were being taught by staff members who acted as trainers, taking away more personnel from testing. At the same time, new federal forensic standards for DNA testing were being adopted, learned, tested and checked for validity, a time-consuming effort, Gamette said.

“It diverted a lot of our resources,” Gamette said. “It was a perfect storm.”

RE-EXAMINING THE LAB

In addition to testing goals, Gamette’s agency is dissecting lab procedures, including revisiting lab techniques, methods and equipment.

“We’re looking at every process and asking if there is a way to make the process more efficient and timely,” he said.

With the recent allocation, the new protocol and scrutiny of department procedures, Gamette believes his department is on the right course.

“By this time next year, I think prosecutors will be really satisfied with us.”

rbartholdt@ lmtribune.com, (208) 848-2275 Statesman reporter John Sowell contributed

Beefing up the state labs

The 2016 Legislature approved money for six new laboratory positions. It can take one to two years to get new workers trained to a level of experienced analysts, lab director Matthew Gamette told the Statesman.

Last July, the lab had four full-time DNA positions, with two workers in training and one that had just completed training. That meant just two of those workers could work cases.

A year later, the lab has seven full-time positions dedicated to DNA analysis. Three workers are able to work DNA, while the other four will be in training for at least part of the next year.

Gamette expects all seven analysts will be working cases by next year.

The lab also has a couple of managers who are former DNA analysts who work a few cases each year.

Evolution of the Idaho labs

A drug identification laboratory was the first crime lab to be funded in 1968 as part of the state’s health lab system that also tested toxicology. The services became the state’s forensic section in the 1970s and added serology — blood tests — and firearms to its growing list of expertise.

The forensic section was transferred to the Department of Law Enforcement in the late 1980s and moved to the Idaho State Police campus in Meridian in 1994. A law two years later authorized a database for retaining DNA profiles of offenders convicted of specific crimes, such as rape and homicide.

State police began collecting those samples in 2000.

ISPFS evidence analysis turnaround

Alcohol/volatiles

Breath alcohol

Controlled substances

Biology screening

DNA

DNA database

Fire evidence

Firearms/ toolmarks

Footwear/ impressions

Latent prints

Blood toxicology

Urine toxicology

Curren turnaround (in days)

15

<30

20

64

291

<30

10

9

NA

107

105

13

ISPFS turnaround goals (in days)

30

30

30

30

30

30

45

60

60

60

45

45

Number of cases in lab longer than strategic turnaround time

0

0

4

32

82

0

0

1

NA

199

196

0

Data as of June 30, 2016

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