Demand rises for crime science in Iowa

State’s backlog of DNA requests grows with new technology, juror expectations

Vanessa Miller
Published: February 7 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:05 am in

It has been referred to as the “CSI effect.”

Fictional forensic crime shows on TV — like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” — have given viewers, who then serve as jurors, an unrealistic expectation for DNA evidence to exist in all criminal investigations.

That effect — paired with the reality that newer technologies are, in fact, making forensic evidence more available to investigators — has resulted in additional pressure on the folks who analyze evidence for forensic clues.

In Iowa, much of that pressure falls on the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Crime Laboratory.

“The expectation for (forensic evidence) is common,” said Bruce Reeve, laboratory administrator for the DCI’s crime lab. “It’s increasing our workload — police being able to pull and look at stuff.”

The increase in investigator requests fueled by heightened juror expectations, in part, is to blame for a backlog of evidence that the state lab has yet to process. Every state has a backlog, according to Reeve, and Iowa’s is on par with other labs — it doesn’t have a longer list or a much shorter list than other states.

“It’s up a little bit, but it’s typical for a public crime lab,” Reeve said.

Still, any delay in evidence processing at the state level can hinder local investigations — including those in Eastern Iowa. It not only can keep prosecutors from being able to develop a case, but it can delay them in identifying a suspect.

Avoiding backlog

Iowa had a backlog of 362 cases at the end of 2012, Reeve said. That means the lab had not yet finished processing evidence in those cases, and there could be multiple pieces of evidence per case.

The average turnaround time on cases closed in 2012 was under 73 days.

“That can go up and down depending on what cases you are working — some cases have to be analyzed right away,” Reeve said. “Taking a case out of order can result in having a lower turnaround time. So the turnaround time can be deceptive.”

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said any delay in the time it takes to process evidence can hinder her office’s ability to prosecute a case.

“Sometimes, you are wanting to find a suspect based on DNA,” she said.

Other times, the suspect is known but DNA evidence could provide more information about an alleged crime or confirm that it even occurred, according to Lyness.

“If you have a suspect, you don’t want to wait any time to see if you need to protect the community,” she said. “And, if DNA is going to exonerate someone, you want to know that as well.”

Delays in evidence processing at the state lab can trickle down to delays in court proceedings and even postpone trials.

“We don’t want any backlog at all,” Lyness said.

Neither do officials at the state lab.

Long process

Laboratory administrator Reeve that despite the increase in demand, the laboratory lost a couple of positions in 2008 and is down in its staffing right now with 11 employees. Sometimes the state receives grant funding, but that money eventually dries up, Reeve said.

“It’s difficult to use grant funding for personnel because once a grant runs out, you have a position that needs to be funded,” Reeve said. “So typically, we will use that funding to try to find ways to improve efficiencies. We try new methodology and automation — those kinds of things.”

There are two types of DNA evidence processed at the state lab. There is forensic evidence collected from crime scenes, victims and suspects in criminal cases. And there are DNA samples taken from convicted offenders and entered into a national database, where authorities can cross-check those samples with crime scene DNA.

Iowa’s lab tests its convicted offender samples in batches. As for forensic evidence, Reeve said, the analysis process can vary depending on the case and the type of evidence. Some cases take priority and others don’t get worked right away.

When they do, criminalists start by simply looking for stains that would contain DNA. They run tests for semen, blood or saliva, depending on the case, using chemical tests and alternate light sources.

Once they find something, they extract the material and determine if enough is present to profile. The profiling is done electronically, Reeve said. And if the profile doesn’t match a known suspect, they enter it in the national database to see if it matches a suspect in another crime.

“It’s a pretty drawn-out process, and it takes time,” Reeve said. “And although some cases have one item of evidence, other cases have dozens.”

Looking ahead

Iowa isn’t alone in its mounting DNA backlog. Nationally, the number of unprocessed cases is climbing as well, according to the National Institute of Justice.

At the end of 2005, the backlog on a national level stood at under 50,000 — with just over 50,000 cases completed that year. At the end of 2009, according to the National Institute of Justice, there was a backlog of more than 100,000 nationally and about 200,000 completed cases.

But, looking into the future, Reeve said he believes technology will make DNA easier to extract, even as it becomes more popular. And, he said, tools are being developed to speed up the processing.

“These will be things that will become even more mainstream,” he said.

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