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To DNA or not to DNA
that is not the question

Bill Murray - 8/15/02


To DNA or not to DNA; that is not the question
The question is ... how much new lab space do we need and how fast do we need it?

Are we Angelenos willing to pay the $100 million it will cost us to fully bring 21st Century crime fighting techniques to this world class city? Probably so, but again, how much Regional Crime Lab is "enough"?

There's little argument that LA is behind the curve. "The LAPD recognizes that we need more DNA people," says Chief Pomeroy, "putting DNA at the forefront."

Most people now understand the importance of forensic technology, especially the gathering of DNA evidence, in identifying and convicting, or even eliminating, a suspect.

Hit series TV shows like "Law and Order" have promoted and educated the public about this important crime fighting tool, as have real-life dramas played out on Court TV.

On June 14, 2002, Florida contributed the one-millionth profile to the National DNA Index System (NDIS) which compares crime scene DNA profiles to profiles of convicted offenders and other crime scene profiles.

More and more the ability to catch criminals "early" in a crime spree depends on compiling and sharing existing DNA evidence. Thousands of law breakers have been caught, tried and convicted in cases where DNA played a vital role.

Just like fingerprinting and the use of "mug shots", collecting, processing and sharing DNA profiles is a law enforcement tool that's here to stay ...

Perhaps less well known is the important work of groups like The Innocence Project, which has to date cleared well over a hundred wrongly convicted inmates.
Created by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in 1992, The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic which only handles cases where postconviction DNA testing of evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence.

The most recent client, Larry Johnson, was exonerated after he'd completed 18 years of a "life plus" sentence for a brutal rape he did not commit. In another case, Frank Lee Smith died of cancer after spending 14 years on Florida's death row after being wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. Eleven months later, DNA results not only cleared him of the crimes, but identified the true perpetrator.

The case files for the 109 exonerated
former inmates who had been cleared as of August 14th is available on the Project website, and make for some fascinating reading.

Most of work of The Innocence Project deals with older cases, those which came to trial prior to widespread acceptance of the technology that's allowed DNA to move to the forefront of law enforcement ... but it's without question that proper use of DNA evidence will both catch the guilty and protect the innocent.

DNA lost locally ... a lesson learned

You may recall reading a couple of weeks ago that the LAPD had inadvertently disposed of over 1,000 evidence samples which may have contained DNA.

Last year, the State of California extended the statute of limitations for sexual assault by passing a law that allows prosecution of some sex offenses within 10 years of a crime, as opposed to the previous six years, extending the amount of of time required to keep untested potential DNA evidence on hand.

But no one told the right detectives ...

Although the press originally claimed poor training was responsible, it's now clear the method of informing current LAPD employees about statutory changes as they occur was more likely the cause. Department staff can and will quickly conform its practices ... but only if it's properly told what's required.

Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who sits on the Public Safety Committee, came before the Police Commission Tuesday to request the Board examine the current policies and procedures for informing LAPD personnel of changes in the law.

Chief Pomeroy and the City Attorney will look into how such information flows down to reach the appropriate employee. They'll report their findings and recommendations back to the Commission within two weeks.

No one wants anything like this to happen again ...

Police Commission considers the options ... is bigger better?

Los Angeles is getting better forensic capabilities, because a new
LA County Regional Crime Lab is being planned, a combined facility which will be shared with the Sheriff. At this point the Department is considering how large the facility will need to be, how many technicians, supervisors and support staff will be needed, and how much of the anticipated workload can be contracted out to other facilities.

There are no simple answers, and everyone agrees the LAPD capacity to professionally produce DNA profiles in a timely manner has to increase.

But the proposed LA County Regional Crime Lab
has an estimated price tag approaching $100 million LA Times (June 28, 2002) ...

District Attorney Steve Cooley has long been a proponent of dramatically enlarging this capacity at LAPD. He came before the Police Commission Tuesday present his vision, saying a significant large-scale facility should be built right away. He
presented his concerns over the amount of space and staff allotted to perform DNA testing in the new crime lab.

"DNA science is here to stay," said Cooley. "LAPD's plans are grossly inadequate."

Chief Pomeroy agreed that DNA testing is very important and that it is a priority. He also stated that the new lab would have the ability to be flexible and expand into new technology as it becomes available. The Chief believes a somewhat smaller facility can fit the bill, pointing out that new emerging technology may well mean less of a need for both space and personnel.

As the Chief said, "Lab space is not the issue. In the main it's a question of how the budget grows and robotics improve."

Both sides make good points,
and the Commission and the Department will look into the issue further ...

On the one hand, in a perfect world where money was no option, a big new state-of-the-art facility would certainly enhance the ability of law enforcement not only locally, but state and nationwide.

The current California data bank holds some 240,000 DNA samples, and no matter which path is taken this will surely increase dramatically, resulting in better identification of suspects, post-arrest exonerations, post-conviction testing, and an improved ability to solve cold cases. In addition, sharing of information with DNA databases across the country and outside the U.S. will improve.

But there are new and exiting technologies being developed which may imply a less significant investiment is wiser at this time, because they may require fewer highly trained experts, and far less space..

For example, The London Times (June 24, 2002) reported that a portable DNA testing kit is under development in Britain. It will be smaller than a suitcase and be linked to their National DNA Database. Details of any hit will be sent via the Internet directly to the detective in charge.

The director of the Forensic Science Service said the kit could be ready within five to ten years. It is contemplated that the crime scene evidence would be put in a solution and then placed in the mobile unit. Silicon chip technology would extract a DNA profile that would be sent to the National Database via a laptop computer. The results would return in under an hour to the detective's palm-held computer.

If such a kit was available in five years, the results from which would hold up in court, perhaps we'd be better building a smaller facility now.

No doubt Los Angeles requires a new lab ... the only question is how extensive should it be. With some estimates pegging the price tag of $100 million it's not a small decision. Are we, the taxpayers, willing to pay for it?

I think we are, as long as we can be convinced of results ...

Because in a very real sense, the reputation of the City as a world class 21st Century leader is at stake.

We wish to include your perspective and some of your ideas, making this article the beginning of a dialogue about DNA and the proposed Regional Crime Lab, and a true LACP community effort.

We'll be adding to the responses all week long as replies come to us. And next week we'll pick another topic (feel free to suggest a future "Question of the Week).

Our practice is to protect the anonymity of any individual whose opinion we use on the site, so unless you specifically tell us it's OK to use your name, we won't.

But our preference is for participants to give us permission to use their names, the sections of the city they're from, and / or an appropriate title.

Let's see if together we can make a difference!

Yours in service,

Bill Murray
LA Community Policing


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Yours in service,

Bill Murray

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