Delays for DNA, fingerprint results continue to vex Nebraska State Patrol Crime lab

Demonstration of DNA analysis at the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
A crime lab tech demonstrates procedures to process trace evidence. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Starsky and Hutch are the knicknames give thermal cyclers used in the DNA analysis.
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July 13, 2017 - 6:32am

A 20 percent increase in the number of requests for DNA testing at the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab has undercut hopes technicians could reduce the number of delays frustrating the state’s law enforcement agencies, according to numbers provided by agency.


 

Inside the Crime Lab facility opened in 2015.

 

A crime lab tech demonstrates DNA evidence processing.

 

The wait time for results on DNA testing was recently calculated by the lab to be 211 days. The response on rush cases for DNA evidence is at the level most jurisdictions consider acceptable: 30 days or less.

Slow turnaround times for processing requests for an increased number of latent fingerprints also have dogged the facility. From January through June 2017 the crime lab reported a turnaround time of 197 days. Response time for trace evidence assignments was 168 days.

The lab's newly released quarterly report shows turnaround times for toxicology and drug testing are in line with best practices for evidence processing. Ballistics and tool mark tests were waiting for over 90 days.

“We've been fairly stable compared to where we were last year regarding most of our examination type,” Crime Lab Director Pam Zilley said.

In the first half of 2017 the lab processed 2,626 pieces of evidence. If the workload maintains that pace, the lab will match the record number of assignments handled the previous year, 5,500 individual pieces of evidence.

Delays in DNA and fingerprint evidence concern both prosecutors and attorneys representing those accused of crimes.

“On the most basic level the turnaround time for DNA evidence is an access to justice issue,” said Tricia Bushnell, the director of the Midwest Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to identifying cases where individuals have been wrongly convicted of crimes.

“This whole hurry up and wait component really adds a lot of stress to both defendants and victims,” Bushnell said. “When we think about something that can give a victim definitive knowledge, DNA can do that.”

Last year scientific analysis of crime scene evidence at the Lincoln-based lab was conducted on behalf of 156 law enforcement agencies.

The state opened the new $9 million crime lab headquarters near the Lincoln airport in October of 2015. It was hoped it would help address persistent delays in getting test results to police agencies.

When the building was unveiled to the state’s news media, Governor Pete Ricketts said it would allow staff to “be more efficient in helping out those agencies.” Ricketts stated the improved technology and additional space for lab workers would “help law enforcement do a better job of catching the bad guys and putting them away.”

Bradley Rice, the recently ousted superintendent of the state patrol accompanied the governor and said he was very hopeful backlogs of evidence waiting to be processed could be reduced across the board to only about a month.

In some categories that promise has been met.

“The new facility has been tremendous,” Zilley told NET News, crediting additions to equipment and staff as well as a more efficient layout with keeping goals in some areas on target. Currently the lab maintains a staff of 26 technicians and support staff.

“Those people have worked so hard and put in quite a bit of overtime, in order to get their turnaround time down,” Zilley said.  “Approximately 30 days is something that we have found submitting agencies are happy with, the courts are happy with.

“It has been a tremendous relief for all of us to be able to get that turnaround time down,” she added.

What’s not going according to plan is the sheer volume of requests for evidence processing from police agencies all over the state. Since the new facility opened, work load has jumped 16 percent overall and submissions to the biology section have shown an unprecedented increase, especially the jump in requests for DNA processing.

“Twenty percent is a lot,” Zilley said. “Clearly, that's a large caseload. There's a lot of pressure to try to get it done.”

The biology section provides DNA testing for nearly all of the law enforcement agencies in Nebraska, and is considered a vital part of investigations of violent crimes, including murder and sexual assault.

Demand for DNA testing outstrips increases in violent crime rates reported in Nebraska, meaning something other than more crime is driving the increased demand.

Zilley declined to speculate on what is behind the increase.

“We don't have really any control over what comes to us. We don't necessarily know why it's suddenly coming to us,” she said, noting DNA testing over the last number of years has trended up in Nebraska, reflecting national trends.

The National Institute of Justice reports the demand for DNA testing is rising because more biological samples are collected at crime scenes and state laws created DNA databases of samples drawn from convicted felons and sex offenders.

Improved training and awareness have permitted smaller agencies to collect and preserve usable DNA evidence. County attorneys are more likely to expect biological evidence as a routine part of their prosecutions.

Filling the allotted number of lab technician jobs has helped other sections of the crime lab to meet turnaround time goals.

“Controlled substances (drug testing) is doing great,” Zilley said. “Their turnaround time now is about 30 days. We added an additional person to that section last year. He's completed his training, so now we are full staff. Everybody trained, everybody working cases.”

Filling a position in the section testing firearms and tool marks helped meet the demand for ballistics testing. There’s hope filling a slot in the latent fingerprint section will get similar results.

When the new crime lab was unveiled to the public Governor Ricketts was asked if he would add additional technicians to help reduce the backlog. He said he’d evaluate staffing after seeing how the improved facility improved the work flow.

Zilley responded cautiously when asked about requesting funds for new lab technicians to meet the increased demand for their services.

“More people would be great but, of course, we're a state agency and lots of state agencies need people, and the state patrol needs people,” Zilley said. “There's only so many resources to go around.”

Any decisions about staffing will wait for a new state patrol superintendent on the heels of the old boss being fired by the governor.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys would like to see the state patrol reduce the wait time for DNA results.

“Nobody likes the idea that there is truth there to be found, but we don’t have the resources to get to it,” said Bushnell of the Innocence Project, noting it’s a problem facing crime labs nationwide.

“I don’t think anyone thinks it’s going to be instantaneous, but people definitely want to have things worked when they come in, but the reality is there is such a backlog in so many states because it’s a resource issue. Labs don’t have enough personnel to handle the amount of DNA work that is coming it.”

Lab Director Zilley says she and her staff want to cut that turn-around time significantly.

“We do everything we can to try to make the most of what we have.”

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