State lab still behind on DNA testing

But is no longer focused on reducing backlog

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / November 27, 2009

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Thirteen years after Manson Brown allegedly pushed through a window of a home on Franklin Street in Cambridge, raped a woman, and disappeared into the night, he was indicted last week for the crime.

He could have been tied to the assault years ago - police took a sample of his blood in 2005, after he was convicted in a home invasion in Brookline - but authorities were so far behind in testing samples that cases like Brown’s languished, and victims, advocates say, were left waiting for closure.

The case, authorities say, illustrates the importance of DNA evidence as a crime-fighting tool, but it also demonstrates how justice can be delayed.

“You have shows like ‘Law and Order’ and ‘CSI,’ where cases are discovered and solved within an hour, but in real life, sadly, budgetary and other issues can really slow the process of justice,’’ said Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition that advocates on behalf of victims of sexual assault.

Two years ago, the State Police Crime Lab came under scrutiny after a state-ordered investigation revealed that more than 16,000 DNA samples, some dating back to the 1980s, were stacked in cold storage and had not been analyzed. That backlog, characterized by the state to be of “crisis proportions,’’ led to the firing or resignation of three lab employees, including the administrator and director.

In a shift, the lab, located in Maynard, no longer is focused on reducing that backlog to zero, officials said.

Since 2007, only 500 samples have been tested from the 16,000. Those samples - many of them connected to homicides and other deaths, sexual assaults, and property crimes - were tested only because district attorneys requested that they be analyzed. If no requests are made, the samples remain in cold storage.

If the statute of limitations is encroaching on a case, the lab will unilaterally analyze certain samples, said John Grossman, the Department of Public Safety’s undersecretary of forensic science and technology.

“We are exercising triage, working with the various district attorneys’ offices,’’ Grossman said. “When the requests come in, we analyze; otherwise, most of those 16,000 samples will remain in cold storage.’’

Many of those 16,000 involve property crimes, motor vehicle incidents, and assaults.

The highest priority now is testing the newest samples. There are about 3,000 crime scene DNA samples and about 3,500 DNA samples from felons that need to be entered into the federal Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The lab can complete 80 to 110 such analyses a month.

Analyzing DNA, a complicated process, can take days or months, depending on the purity of the sample and the urgency of the investigation.

Backlogs are a nationwide problem. The federal government, through its DNA Backlog Reduction Act, has earmarked about $151 million from this year through 2014 to reduce backlogs. This year, Massachusetts received $1.2 million, most of which went to the State Police Crime Lab.

Michael Sheppo, director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences for the National Institute of Justice, said the demand for DNA testing far surpasses the capacity for labs to do such testing. “We are getting a very educated group of police professionals who know how to collect evidence,’’ he said. “And because of the ‘CSI effect,’ more emphasis is being placed on DNA evidence; in the courts, people expect to hear something dealing with DNA evidence.’’

Renewed interest in long-unsolved “cold’’ cases and in postconviction testing, when inmates seek DNA analyses in an effort to overturn their convictions, also put pressure on testing labs, Sheppo said.

Sometimes a police department will request a speedy test because a suspect is a flight risk or there are other extenuating circumstances.

Everett police made such a request in October, after a woman was found stabbed to death on her doorstep. A former boyfriend, a native of Brazil, was later charged.

Eventually, better technology will cut the backlogs, Sheppo said. “Certainly, through new instrumentation and robotics they are going to be able to do this quicker,’’ he said.

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at