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Labs lower backlog of DNA evidence at FDLE

While CSI and other television crime shows manage to process DNA evidence in minutes or days, the reality in Florida is something else.

Criminal investigators can wait months for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to process DNA samples.

But it's gotten better.

Last year the FDLE began outsourcing some of its cases to private labs. The result was a considerable reduction in backlogged cases, from a high of 4,815 in November 2005 to 2,290 at the end of 2007.

The backlog stood at 2,687 at the end of May.

Not that some cases can't be done quickly. "We've cleared a case in 24 hours," said Barry Funck, the FDLE's forensic services director.

When Edward Allen Covington was charged with murdering his girlfriend, Lisa Freiberg, and her two children in May, the FDLE's Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center "jumped on that case real quick and cleared it real fast," Funck said.

But most DNA results in nonviolent or lower-priority cases take much longer.

"It's by no means ever like" CSI, said Matthew Parks, a Gulfport police detective. "It usually takes months before they give us a match."

It took over six months for Parks to get a match that led to the arrest of a Largo man whose DNA from a prior conviction matched a bloody bandage left at the scene of a burglary.

The case was one of more than 2,500 outsourced to private labs in 2007 in an effort to reduce the overwhelming backlog of DNA requests.

Statewide, the FDLE has seven labs that process DNA samples and other forensic evidence for municipalities. Of the approximately 13,800 DNA cases received last year, about 20 percent were outsourced to Bode Technologies and Orchid-Cellmark Laboratories, both national companies.

Outsourcing is part of a plan that began in August 2006 to reduce the FDLE's backlog and turnaround time.

While turnaround times were about six months or more in 2007, the private labs are averaging about 90 days, and the FDLE's labs are averaging slightly less, said Funck.

Violent crimes, cases that involve a flight risk and cases with pending court dates get top priority, he said.

Several years ago, as the FDLE dealt with ever-increasing backlogs and the high turnover rate of lab workers, low-priority crimes including burglaries were pushed aside.

"In some cases, agencies wouldn't even submit them because they knew we couldn't get to them," said Funck.

Since then, the FDLE has made efforts to reduce the number of potential DNA evidence samples to five at a time and has worked with local agencies on prescreening submissions.

The turnaround time has been notable to local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.

"We have seen a dramatic difference on the turnaround time on results from the FDLE," said Pam Bondi, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober.

While samples have been collected at property crime scenes for years, the decreased backlogs have helped lead to more DNA matches and closed investigations, said Jim Contento supervisor of the Tampa police forensics unit.

Outsourcing DNA samples has become common practice since 200 when the National Institute of Justice began to provide grants, said W. Mark Dale, director of the Northeast Regional Forensics Institute at the University at Albany in New York.

The institute will award about $56-million for such programs this year. Florida is eligible for more than $5-million.

"Sometimes it's more cost-effective to outsource the routine things and save the more complex analysis for your employees," Dale said.

Said Funck, "At this point we're below what our performance expectations call for but we're still not where we need to be."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8361.

Labs lower backlog of DNA evidence at FDLE 06/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 11:00pm]

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