No Easy Solution for Crime-Lab Backlog

Backlogged Crime Lab Seeking More Scientists

When it comes to solving crimes and prosecuting defendants, a major concern is getting evidence processed quickly and correctly.

For the San Diego Police Department, the "quickly" part of the equation has become more and more of a question mark. The department's crime lab has a staggering backlog, mainly because of an explosion in the volume of requests for DNA testing.

Leads in a lot of cases could be left hanging, and without more manpower and resources, the forensic scientists figure to fall farther behind.

"For every one of those cases where there is DNA isn't tested, one wonders what the outcome of the case could be," said Lorie Hearn, executive director of the nonprofit Watchdog Institute for investigative journalism at San Diego State University. "We were prompted to ask for the electronic data base of the backlog specifically after the arrest of John Gardner. We wanted to see exactly what kind of cases were on the backlog and how many there were."

Give or take a few, the Watchdog Institute has learned -- through a Public Records Act request -- that the police lab's backlog is pushing toward 500 cases. They involve everything from killings to rapes to kidnappings to robberies. Nearly half comprise DNA from burglaries.

"So, clearly, DNA evidence means much more to juries and detectives," Hearn observed. "And detectives are collecting more DNA evidence in more kinds of cases than they ever did."

A decade ago, only 275 DNA cases -- the majority involving homicides and sex crimes -- were submitted to the crime lab.

"We think we're going to experience at least 2,000 this year," said San Diego police Assistant Chief Cesar Solis. "Two reasons: One is technology, the other is awareness. Everybody is aware of DNA."

But they're not aware how overwhelmed the DNA scientists are. There are only 12 in San Diego, and they process an average of about 100 cases apiece per year.

"We have many areas in this city that are in urgent need of additional funding," Hearn said. "This is one, and this is one that some people could make an argument that could relate directly to public safety."

Crime lab officials would like to hire five more DNA specialists at a total annual cost of about $635,000. The department's top brass said they have always gotten the necessary support from the mayor and City Council on high-priority expenditures.

Going forward, the question is whether DNA testing fits the profile for additional funding at City Hall.

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