Crime Labs Awash in DNA Requests

By Orrick, Dave | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

Crime Labs Awash in DNA Requests


Orrick, Dave, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Dave Orrick Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer

Kelly Gannon is unwrapping a mystery.

With a sterilized letter-opener and scissors, her blue-gloved hands slice and peel away sections of red tape from the cardboard container. It's only about the size of a shallow shoe box, but inside may be the key to whether a young child was sexually assaulted. And by whom.

It will take Gannon, a forensic scientist at the Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory in Highland Park, about an hour to determine whether the box - a "rape kit" containing bodily "swabbings" and pieces of the child's clothes - contains any fluids that can be tested for DNA.

If it doesn't, the kit will be returned to the investigators who sent it to the lab. Then she'll move on to the next batch of evidence.

And these days, there's always another batch waiting.

Last week marked the 50-year anniversary of the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, and testing for its presence has never been in hotter demand.

A quadruple-whammy of law-enforcement needs - cold cases, post- conviction appeals, fresh crime scenes and building a DNA fingerprint database - has left crime labs from Wheaton to Washington, D.C., up to their double-helixes in requests for DNA testing.

For example, one state police crime lab designed to handle 2,000 cases a year is being expanded to handle 30,000. But the ink on expansion plans was hardly dry when the task of drawing DNA from all convicted felons raised that annual projection to 105,000.

The result is the now-routine testing process that should take less than a week can stretch on for half a year, lab records and officials say.

The only alternative, officials agree, is to spend more money, either by beefing up taxpayer-funded labs or farming more work out to private companies, which costs more.

As a law enforcement tool, the chemical building block of life - which has the ability to identify a person from a drop of blood the size of a pinhead - has eclipsed nearly every forensic advance before it.

Among the most tantalizing use of DNA is its power to crack cold cases. DNA from saliva found on a piece of chicken left at the scene of the 1993 Palatine Brown's Chicken killings helped confirm, according to Cook County prosecutors, that suspect Juan Luna was there that night.

But with more than a century's worth of cold cases potentially up for review, the desire to dust off old evidence has put a strain on many labs.

"What's killing us in our lab are these cold cases that are being reopened," said John Collins, director of the DuPage County sheriff's crime lab.

He said there's often plenty of evidence, but much of it is unsuitable for finding DNA because crime scene investigators years ago didn't collect evidence with DNA in mind. This can lead to a long process of testing and re-testing many pieces of evidence with little luck.

"It can be kind of a wild goose chase," he said. "And if you're getting pressure from the police or prosecutors - and they have every right to do that - it takes away time from other cases."

With one full-time and one part-time scientist on staff, the DuPage lab is among the state's smallest.

A recent check of its backlog revealed 67 cases, the bulk of which have been pending for more than a month. Thirty-four have been there more than two months.

The network of eight crime labs operated by the Illinois State Police - the second largest government-run lab network in America behind the FBI's - can handle most urgent tests in a few days. But with 185 requests received in January alone, a typical case takes five to six months, according to the agency.

They're not all cold cases.

Last month, Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine announced a plan to review roughly 100 cases in which a suspect was convicted of murder but yet-untested DNA might exonerate them - or reaffirm the conviction. …

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