As reported recently by the Pittsburgh Tribune, Pennsylvania’s efforts to use DNA as a swift tool for solving crime are not keeping up with the need. When there is a crime committed by an unknown perpetrator with some type of biological material left behind, police often want to obtain potential DNA results as quickly as possible. There are three public labs in Pennsylvania that conduct DNA testing: the Philadelphia police Forensic Science Unit analyzes cases from Philadelphia, the Allegheny County crime lab tests evidence from Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas, and the Pennsylvania State Police Laboratory is responsible for all other areas. Unless there is a compelling reason to ‘outsource’ a test to a private lab, all DNA testing on criminal cases go to one of these three labs.
But according to this most recent article, cases move slowly. Sometimes too slowly, both for victims and for wrongly accused defendants. While there will always be a lag in time between when evidence is submitted and when it is tested — referred to as a “backlog” — the current situation strains patience. Requesting evidence testing from the state lab takes about 6 to 9 months (although homicide and rape cases can be fast-tracked for 4 to 8 weeks). Currently, over 1,000 cases wait in line for analysts to test for the presence of DNA.
But what about those who have already been convicted, who have been granted DNA testing to prove their innocence? How long do they have to wait? Without prioritization, even longer than an “active” case. One case of which the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is aware was ordered to have testing done by state police in 2010, and testing was finally done in late 2011 (the results were inconclusive).
Yet another, thornier, issue arises when someone who is relying upon DNA to prove his innocence tries to find out who really did commit the crime, by comparing an unknown DNA profile to the national database of DNA profiles, commonly referred to as “CODIS.” Because only public labs have access to the database, even if the inmate uses a private lab to do the actual testing (which, of course, preserves public resources), the state lab still has to compare the new DNA profile to CODIS. And this they will not do, although federal regulations allow them to. It took the Pennsylvania Innocence Project over a year of litigation to obtain a court order requiring the state police to even agree to screen a private lab to see whether a new profile could be entered into CODIS (the lab in question is the largest private DNA lab in the country, and one with more advanced technology than any Pennsylvania public lab).
Resources are scarce. And our public labs are doing everything they can within their power to expedite testing without sacrificing good scientific practices. But when private labs — who not only can compete with the public labs in terms of analytical expertise, but can offer more advanced, better testing options — are shut out from participating in post-conviction testing and profile comparisons, those resources are only taxed even more. And innocent people languish while their cases drag on and on. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project believes that our DNA labs should be fully funded, and that our labs should receive the support they need to do the job we all want: identify the guilty, and free the innocent.