The State Crime Laboratory's backlog demands attention

February 15, 2013 

The term DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid, but at the State Crime Laboratory it’s acquiring a second meaning – Data Not Available.

Consider a case from this week in which DNA evidence caused Johnston County prosecutors to drop a rape charge against a man jailed for 18 months with no trial. It took 14 months to get the test results that showed the victim had been raped by someone else.

It’s no wonder there are long delays once you crunch the number of State Crime Laboratory workers analyzing DNA evidence with the number of submissions and hours in a week.

The laboratory, which handles evidence analysis for more than 600 law enforcement agencies across the state, received more than 3,900 DNA submissions last year – many taking 40 staff hours to analyze, lab director Joseph R. John says.

Testing that number of submissions could take 156,000 hours. The lab employs 25 DNA analysts, who would find themselves more than 100,000 hours short even if they never took a vacation day or holiday during 40-hour weeks in a year.

“It is just mathematical reality; we cannot handle, in a timely manner, the number of cases we have coming in the door with the number of scientists we have in the lab now,” John says.

Since the 2007-08 fiscal year, the number of DNA case submissions have increased 107 percent – more than 16 percent just in 2011-12, a year when the number of total employees at the lab actually decreased because of state budget cuts.

The situation is simply unacceptable, and it cuts both ways: While the justice system waits an entire year for results, criminals whom DNA matches would have convicted can roam free while innocent people remain in jail at great cost to lives and to the state.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision also dictates that DNA analysts be available to testify in person in cases affected by their work. That time away from the lab critically affects the backlog, John says.

The laboratory reports that its work in 2011 led to the convictions of more murderers and rapists than in the DNA program’s entire first decade of existence.

John also pointed out in an interview that the laboratory requires that every case handled by a DNA analyst be peer-reviewed by another analyst in the department – 100 percent of the time. Very few states require that level of attention.

This year, as it did last year to no avail, the lab is asking the General Assembly to pay for 18 more DNA analysts, two supervisors and one evidence technician – and that’s just to play catch up.

Given that law enforcement is relying more and more on forensic science to solve crimes, justice and community safety demand that the answer be yes.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service