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I-Team: State DNA Crime Lab Explains Delays

By WBZ-TV Chief Correspondent Joe Shortsleeve
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WBZ-TV's Joe Shortsleeve Joe Shortsleeve
Joe Shortsleeve is chief correspondent for WBZ-TV News weekdays a...
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BOSTON (CBS) – The arrest and conviction of a chemist at the state’s drug lab has gotten a lot of attention this year. But the I-Team found the state’s other high profile crime lab, which handles DNA, has had its own problems. Chief Correspondent Joe Shortsleeve says defense attorneys and crime victims say long delays are impacting justice.

Take a walk through the state’s DNA crime lab in Maynard and chemists are putting murders and sexual assaults under the microscope. The evidence analyzed here is the difference between guilt and innocence. But this lab has been under fire, critics say results can take too long, often months and months and months.

Randy Chapman is a defense attorney. “Just like an airplane circling an airport and waiting for a runway to land on, this piece of evidence is sitting in the state police lab,” he says.

Chapman says long delays impact justice. And they often benefit those accused because witnesses disappear and memories fade as evidence sits.

“There is a colleague of mine who says any time the Commonwealth moves for DNA testing, he considers that a Commonwealth motion for a nine month continuance.”

Data obtained by the I-Team confirms year to year the number of completed cases at the state’s DNA crime lab in Maynard are down from 1219 to 1092.

The result, a backlog that has grown from 1420 to 1538 cases.

Meg Bossong counsels rape victims. “Many survivors look at it as a validation that something has happened to them, that they were harmed,” she says.

Bossong says wait times for those results from the crime lab have doubled in recent years…from six to twelve weeks. “The other piece is that when people are waiting on toxicology results. Sometimes they are waiting to make a decision about whether to report to the police.”

Last Fall a Beacon Hill Senate Committee issued a report, ‘When Time is of the Essence.’ It looked at delays in handling sexual assault evidence at the State Crime Lab. Researchers concluded delays were due to a number of factors including “insufficient staffing.” Lawmakers pointed out labs that process evidence from sexual assaults “can take weeks or months.” They suggested officials look at a California pilot program “where the average turnaround time for obtaining DNA results is reduced to 15 business days.”

The Colonel for the State Police, Timothy Alben, says delays are the result of rules which require chemists to testify in court and more specifically a new accreditation, which required extensive training taking as many as one third of chemists out of the loop temporarily. Alben says, “now that we are past the accreditation process, I see more speed being built into the system. We would like to see the right efficiencies built into the system and we want to be timely in our response but we need to get it right that is what public safety is all about.”

State Police tell the I-Team this new international accreditation is “the universally-recognized gold standard for forensic facilities.” It should mean results will be untouchable in any courtroom. In an effort to speed things up, the colonel for the state police also tells the I-Team he is hiring two more DNA chemists to bring the total to 20.

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