Do the pros of DNA evidence outweigh cons?

MANATEE — It was a “shot in the dark,” but it led to an arrest a year after the crime.

Palmetto police investigators had a major property crime on their hands two years ago, and were lucky to have some DNA evidence. Detectives submitted the sample to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to be tested for entry in state and federal databases.

“We had a lot of property stolen in this particular crime,” said Palmetto Police Lt. Scott Tyler. “But there was not a lot of evidence.”

Yet testing of the sample was not high on FDLE’s priority list — rightly so, Tyler said, because even Palmetto police didn’t have the highest of hopes the DNA would lead to an arrest.

Police had to wait a year for the sample to be tested, and it did lead to an arrest. The DNA matched an offender in a law enforcement database.

“It was really a shot in the dark, but it paid off,” said Tyler. “It took a while, but we were OK with that because in the end it worked.”

Tyler’s case exemplifies the successes and pitfalls law enforcement agencies are facing in the high-tech world of DNA.

In the 1990s, DNA testing came into its own and prosecutors began getting convictions based on the forensic evidence. On the flip side, many convictions of the innocent were overturned based on DNA.

As the use of DNA among law enforcement continued to spread, its popularity led to a whole new breed of problems as state and private laboratories were inundated with samples to be tested.

A backlog at the FBI’s DNA lab may have caused a monthslong delay this year in the identification of Delmer Smith, as reported by the Bradenton Herald. Smith has since been charged with several home invasions and sexual assaults in Sarasota County, and may still be linked to more attacks in Manatee and Sarasota.

Local law enforcement officials say the time and costs of submitting DNA is worth the return of investigative leads and arrests, and most say they are sending out as much forensic evidence as they can.

Still, delays and funding concerns have led law enforcement officials across the country to weigh whether DNA submissions are worth it, a new U.S. Department of Justice study released this month has confirmed.

‘It could be the key’

Backlogs and long wait times have dissuaded law enforcement elsewhere from submitting DNA samples even in some major homicide and rape cases, according to the DOJ study.

In a 2007 survey of 2,250 law enforcement agencies across the nation, there were an estimated 6,728 unsolved homicides, 33,696 unsolved rapes and 4.7 million unsolved property crimes.

Among those unsolved crimes, the agencies reported that forensic evidence was collected in 88 percent of the homicides, 73 percent of the rapes and 29 percent of the property crimes, the DOJ study states.

But of those cases, forensic evidence, including DNA, was not submitted for testing in an estimated 3,975 of the homicide cases, and 27,595 rapes. Of those cases, 40 percent had DNA evidence that was not submitted, according to the study.

Reasons for not submitting forensic evidence varied among agencies, with 17 percent saying they did not believe the evidence was useful, and 44 percent saying they did not submit if they had not identified a suspect.

Timeliness of getting results was also a major factor, as 11 percent of agencies said a lab’s inability to produce timely results prevented them from submitting, and 6 percent said their local lab was not accepting samples because of a backlog.

FDLE spokeswoman Heather Smith said the average wait time on a DNA sample is 70 days.

There is a backlog in FDLE labs of 892 samples that are 111 days or older, the benchmark for a sample being counted as part of that backlog, Smith said.

“To put that in perspective, last fiscal year we received 19,431 requests for services from law enforcement agencies, so we really are not facing the backlog that many other states are,” Smith said.

Locally, law enforcement agencies are using DNA as a major investigative tool, and most officials here say they rarely, if ever, hold any DNA back.

“Pretty much if we have something, we send it,” said Bradenton Police Det. Rich Konieczka, who heads the city’s crime lab. “Especially if it is all you have. It may turn out to be nothing, or it could be the key.”

But waiting for that possible “key” can take a while, as evidenced by a burglary investigated by Bradenton police two years ago.

Detectives responding to a burglary of an Albertson’s grocery store found some blood, which was promptly sent away for testing.

As police waited for the results, a suspect was identified by surveillance video and he confessed. He was convicted of a felony burglary charge and sent to prison. His DNA sample was taken upon his conviction and entered into law enforcement databases.

Two years after police initially submitted the sample from the Albertson’s store, they received word from FDLE:

The sample taken from the Albertson’s crime scene matched the sample taken from the suspect after he was convicted of and sent to prison for the burglary.

Costs vs. results

Funding was also named by numerous law enforcement agencies as a roadblock to submitting DNA, with 9 percent of agencies surveyed saying the cost of DNA testing was an issue, according to the DOJ study.

In Manatee, law enforcement continues to weigh the cost of submission against the results generated in terms of leads on cases or arrests.

Deciding on what and where to send something is often a daily consideration, according to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Connie Shingledecker.

For the most part, the sheriff’s office and cities submit their DNA samples to FDLE, which does not charge for processing.

But in recent years, because of the backlogs, FDLE entered into agreements with several private labs allowing them to analyze forensic evidence for law enforcement agencies in Florida.

Using the private lab is quicker, but it is also expensive, leading law enforcement agencies to pick and choose when they use a private lab.

The sheriff’s office often uses the private lab DNA Labs International, out of Deerfield Beach, to process DNA, which can add up to $1,500 a sample.

So DNA Labs is used only after careful screening of the case, Shingledecker said. To use the private lab, she and a sheriff’s captain must sign off on the expense.

The private lab is usually used for cases only when time is of the essence, or there is evidence that the sample will almost surely match a suspect, she said.

“We have a great relationship with FDLE, and we appreciate that we have the added tool of using the private lab if we deem it necessary,” Shingledecker said.

For smaller departments, using a private lab is less an option. Both Tyler and Konieczka said private labs have been used by their respective agencies, but usually only in an emergency where immediate results are needed.

“For the most part we rely on FDLE, but there have been instances of violence of persons crimes where we know there is someone out there we have to get off the street,” Tyler said.

Robert Napper, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024.