innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Laboratories of Justice

This article appeared in the Boston Globe on September 24, 2006:

Laboratories of justice


IN TELEVISION crime dramas, forensic scientists work in sprawling facilities, produce case-closing lab results in a matter of hours, and earn enough money to support runway-worthy office attire. At the Massachusetts State Police crime lab, forensic scientists have backlogs of cases, inadequate bench space, and $35,000 salaries that recently led five of the state's 32 crime lab chemists to seek work in other states -- a 15 percent turnover in one year. Most real-world DNA crime labs fall short of prime-time standards. But, according to a review of investigation practices by the state's District Attorneys Association earlier this month, the Massachusetts lab desperately needs improvement to ensure the integrity of the justice system.

The state was slow to build a facility that can keep up with the needs of the justice system. As recently as two years ago, the lab had limited district attorneys' offices to one DNA analysis per month in cases other than murder.

The state has made important strides since then. The crime lab has tripled its staff since 2004. And with a new facility in Maynard set to open next month, the lab is on course to dramatically expand from the 24,000 square feet it now occupies in two Sudbury buildings to a total of 100,000 square feet.

The upgrades have shaved the turnaround time for DNA analysis in half, from as long as 15 or 16 months to about six to eight months, according to State Police Colonel Mark Delaney. But for police and prosecutors pursuing rape and murder suspects, six months can be an impossibly long wait. And the existing backlog of cases awaiting DNA work will take years more to clear.
While the upcoming expansion is desperately needed, it is still a tight squeeze: Together, the three facilities will provide only about one-third of the space the lab needs. Staffing is an even more serious problem. Delaney said the lab's target turnaround time for DNA analysis is 30 days. To get there, the state would need another 50 forensic chemists.

Right now, the state is not only losing chemists to other labs with better pay; it's also losing the $24,000 investment in state training for each one who leaves. ``These are people with advanced degrees in biology, and they are testifying [in court] on complex DNA issues," Delaney said. ``They deserve a working wage that would be comfortable." Lieutenant Governor and Republican candidate Kerry Healey, who has made criminal justice a focus of her tenure and her campaign, has said she supports the 30-day target goal for DNA analysis, and the additional 50 chemists it would take to get there.

In Delaney's view, state forensic chemists should earn at least $50,000. At that rate, hiring and training 50 more would mean upward of $4 million. It will be up to the new governor to confront this price tag, and the serious public safety issues that hinge on timely DNA analysis.


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