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Backlog of DNA may aid cases

State officials will review old crimes

Law enforcement officials across Massachusetts are reviewing unsolved homicides to determine whether unanalyzed DNA evidence might crack the cases following release of a harshly critical study yesterday that found that the State Police crime laboratory has a backlog of 16,000 untested crime scene samples.

State Police detectives will focus on cold homicide cases, while prosecutors will home in on sexual assaults, the crime lab said yesterday.

Top public safety officials said yesterday they will use the study -- conducted by Vance, a consulting firm with offices in Braintree -- as a roadmap to fix problems at the lab that have been cited repeatedly by outside investigators.

The $267,000 study concluded that quality control at the crime laboratory is badly broken, leading to a host of problems, including one of the nation's worst backlogs in untested biological evidence.

Kevin M. Burke, the state's secretary of public safety, and Colonel Mark F. Delaney, superintendent of the State Police, said they were stunned to learn about the amount of untested DNA and said it will probably take millions of dollars and months for the laboratory to sort through the 16,000 cases. Those cases date to the mid-1980s and include about 1,000 deaths and more than 6,600 sexual assaults.

Law enforcement officials will have to determine which cases remain unsolved and which of those, under the statute of limitations, can still be prosecuted. It will then cost about $1,000 for each test, which will be done by outside labs.

Despite the backlog, Burke said, it was unlikely that dangerous criminals have escaped justice. Burke, a former Essex district attorney, said he assumed that many of the cases with untested evidence had been solved using other investigative methods and that some of the samples were irrelevant because they came from victims.

"We think that in these cases there are only the remotest . . . of possibilities that murderers or rapists are walking free," he said during a press conference yesterday at State Police headquarters in Framingham.

However, David Lazer, a specialist on DNA evidence who teaches public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said he will believe that only after public safety officials have sorted through the unsolved crime scene samples.

"If they can't document that, then I think we as the public should demand transparency and accountability here," he said.

While three officials with oversight of the crime lab have resigned or been fired since March, Delaney, who oversaw the lab as a major before he became superintendent, has largely escaped public criticism.

He said yesterday that he had been aware of a backlog of a few thousand untested DNA samples in recent years. But he said it was not his job to know that there were 10,000 in cold storage dating back to the 1980s.

"I'm not a scientist, so we have to rely on scientific managers," he said. "It's not the job of a major to get that deep down in the weeds."

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said the Vance report will be the focus of the monthly meeting of the state District Attorneys Association tomorrow.

O'Keefe, who has been pushing for improvements in the state's forensic services for years, said that district attorneys were surprised to receive the report just hours before the press conference, given that they rely on the evidence analyzed by the lab.

The 57-page study, ordered in March by Burke after problems surfaced with the processing of DNA test results at the lab, heartened law enforcement officials with its finding that DNA analyses carried out by the lab are scientifically sound.

But the report made 27 recommendations based on serious deficiencies, including:

All forensic services that are now scattered among several State Police offices should be consolidated and placed under the control of a new laboratory director to be hired after a national search. The lab's staff of DNA analysts should be doubled to about 80.

The laboratory fails to make sure that mistakes are caught and corrected. An unidentified supervisor told the consultants that forensic biology employees were "paralyzed by fear" of punitive action if they told managers of mistakes.

On average, DNA tests take 359 days to complete at the lab, much longer than in other states. This apparently stems in part from confusion about procedures, leading to unnecessary delays. Since 1999, when regular DNA analyses began, the lab has tested about 1,200 samples, Burke said.

Outside auditors have made repeated recommendations for improvements that the lab has ignored. For example, five audits since 2000 identified problems with the handling of evidence in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the FBI-funded computer network that serves as a national registry for DNA samples collected from convicted criminals and arrested individuals.

The CODIS unit was perceived as a "dumping ground" for lab employees who were considered incompetent or unwanted, the consultants said.

Carl Selavka, the civilian head of the crime lab, resigned under pressure in March. Robert E. Pino, the administrator of the DNA database, was fired in April, three months after he was suspended for allegedly mishandling CODIS test results. Pino was not qualified for the job and lacked sufficient staff, said the Vance consultants.

Last month, LaDonna J. Hatton, the state's top forensics official, who supervised the troubled state medical examiner's office as well as the crime lab, also resigned.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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