ANNAPOLIS – Two years ago, nearly 25,000 DNA samples from convicted felons were sitting around the Maryland State Police laboratory. Due to lack of funds and long-vacant job positions, the samples had never been analyzed or catalogued into the state’s DNA database system.
Today, even though the backlog has been completely erased, defense attorneys are concerned about the potential for an even larger backlog when the new DNA collection law is enacted next year. They argue those backlogs could lead to more unsolved crimes and faulty convictions due to contaminated DNA samples.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that. It’s just a question of arithmetic,” said Michelle M. Nethercott, chief attorney of the public defender’s Innocence Project in Maryland. “You’re going to have thousands of these things coming in. And we’re going to have all these DNA samples stacked up that haven’t been tested.”
Beginning on Jan. 1, DNA samples will be taken from those who are charged with committing or attempting to commit burglary and violent crimes, including rape and sexual crimes, abduction, and child abuse.
Greg Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, estimates that the crime lab will see between 4,000 and 6,000 additional DNA samples each year after the law takes effect.
Previously, DNA samples were taken only from individuals that were convicted of those crimes.
Specifically citing that the extensive backlog was completely eliminated in 2007, the Maryland State Police maintain that the lab is well-equipped to handle the increase in DNA samples.
“We’ll be able to accommodate the different workload. There will be a significant increase, but the government has allocated significant resources for the process,” Shipley said.
O’Malley has allocated the forensics department an extra $1.3 million for DNA equipment and contractual services to supplement the lab’s budget. The lab will also hire 10 additional scientists, specialists and statisticians, as well as provide extensive collection training videos that will be included in the new collection kits. The Division of Parole and Probation has also trained 500 agents in DNA collection.
But not everyone is convinced that the additional resources are enough to prevent future problems.
“Look at the problems in the Baltimore City police crime labs. Multiply that by several thousands,” said Stephen Harris, a former public defender and director of the Maryland Innocence Project at the University of Baltimore.
In Baltimore City, the crime lab department’s analysts recently contaminated crime scene evidence with their own DNA. A few years earlier, there had also been contamination of gunshot residue in the city’s crime lab, Harris said.
State legislators have been so concerned about lab standards that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is scheduled to oversee the city’s crime lab in 2011.
Last month, the Baltimore Sun reported that state officials had misplaced more than 2,000 DNA samples of convicted felons that should have been logged into the state’s DNA database.
The police spokesman attributed the missing samples to clerical errors.
The state police crime lab has tried to take every precaution to ensure a smooth transition into the new law next year, including devising four basic steps outlining the collection, analysis, expungement and reporting of the samples.
According to the plan, those formally charged with a violent crime or burglary will have their samples collected at a detention facility. After the samples are collected, they will then be mailed to the state police crime lab and logged into the DNA database.
Only when charges are dropped against an individual will the DNA sample be expunged, or deleted, from the state’s database. Then, the forensic sciences department will produce an annual report, including various costs, racial demographic information of the DNA collected, certain crime scene and resulting charge information, and matches from the samples.
If used correctly, the new DNA law could potentially solve decades-old cases in Maryland, but some believe the new law is bound to be a recipe for disaster.
“The Maryland State Police is going to get right back with the backlog they had before. And it’s not going to be pretty,” Nethercott said. “If you ask me, this whole thing is kind of backwards.”