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When someone is raped in the nation’s capital, investigators may take swabs of DNA evidence but that evidence may never get tested. Even in rapes and murders where there are mountains of evidence and potential suspects, turnaround time for testing DNA evidence in D.C. often takes a year and many times doesn’t take place until a suspect is arrested. Just look at the investigation of the high-profile slaying of Washington attorney Robert Wone. His stabbing death last August occurred in a Dupont Circle row house while three other people were in the home. Yet that murder remains unsolved, in part because much of the forensic testing still hasn’t been completed more than eight months after his killing. Welcome to the jungle. Solving serious crimes in the District is hampered by more than reluctant witnesses and tight budgets. The city lacks basic resources available to most large cities across the country: a local crime lab. Though the city tests fingerprints and firearms, anything more complicated — from testing DNA to drugs or hair samples — must be handled by an array of federal labs outside the city limits, where backlogs often put D.C.’s cases at the bottom of the list. The problem is no secret. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) organized a congressional hearing last fall, but plans to build a local crime lab already have hit numerous snags. The District’s first DNA program manager quit, only a small part of the $200 million needed has been approved, and the opening date for the Southwest D.C. facility already has been pushed back a year to 2010. While the crime rate in D.C. has dropped in the past few years, the most recent FBI statistics from 2005 show that roughly 40 percent of all District murders and forcible rapes remained unsolved. A local crime lab would be no panacea for all of the problems with solving crimes in the District. Indeed, forensic labs in Virginia and Texas have been scrutinized recently for poor-quality testing and false identification of suspects. But D.C. police and other local officials say a local lab would go a long way toward leveling the playing field between the cops and the criminals. “It’s the back-room side of law enforcement, and it’s so critical,” says D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large). But the process has been “a study in how slow the government can move.” DEFENDANT FIRST, EVIDENCE LATER Crime lab backlogs are common across the country, but the challenges are more pronounced in the District because it lacks control over how quickly material is tested. The snail-paced processing is most evident for DNA and trace material of hair and fibers, which have been sent to the FBI’s main lab for years. That evidence makes up roughly one-third of the annual workload of the facility in Quantico, Va. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the lab caseload has increased as its focus has shifted to terrorism. Wait time depends on the size and scope of D.C. cases, and sometimes delays are caused by investigators turning up new evidence, says Robert Fram, chief of the FBI’s scientific analysis section at the lab. “Even though you have a nice [priority] list of cases, you’re constantly having to change that,” Fram says. In practice, D.C. only sends material for violent crimes to be tested, and even then, prosecutors must prioritize what material can get tested. Unlike some states, D.C. doesn’t test DNA evidence for burglaries or other nonviolent crimes. “The FBI does a remarkable job in what they do in what we need to have done,” says Jeffrey Taylor, the U.S. attorney for the District. “But obviously the FBI has to serve a lot of different clients, and we would be better off if we had our own Washington, D.C., lab.” Last September, Kenneth Wainstein, the former U.S. attorney in the District, made the same point at the hearing Norton organized before the House Committee on Government Reform. “These workload realities mean that the FBI can generally conduct DNA analysis in a case only after an arrest has been made and a trial date is set,” Wainstein testified. “Thus, it is a relatively rare occasion when we are able to make use of DNA analysis in the investigative stages of our cases.” The problem hits rape cases hard. Robert Spagnoletti, who resigned last year as D.C.’s attorney general to enter private practice, previously served as head of the sex-crimes unit in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he says the rule of thumb was that “unless we had a suspect, we wouldn’t do testing.” According to the most recent FBI statistics, there were 165 forcible rapes in the District in 2005. While not every rape requires DNA testing to prove the case, Cmdr. Chris Lojacono, who heads the D.C. police Forensic Science Division, says that police now try to send DNA kits even in cases without suspects. “Can I say that in each and every case that has occurred?” he says. “I cannot make that claim.” Police say homicide cases take priority for testing. Indeed, after the Wone murder, police claimed that physical evidence would be key to solving the case, particularly because the three residents stopped talking with investigators almost immediately. Police occupied the Dupont Circle home for a month, gathering blood smatterings and tearing apart floorboards for analysis. But so far only part of that material has come back from the FBI, according to investigators. Though police say the investigation remains active, there have been no arrests. Pending court dates often push some cases ahead of others. And when the FBI can’t meet court deadlines, prosecutors must contract with private DNA labs, which charge at least $1,000 per sample. The lack of a local lab also means the District doesn’t fully benefit from a national DNA database maintained by the FBI. Federal and many state laws require that all convicted felons submit DNA samples to the database for possible matches in other crimes. But under D.C. statute, only those convicted of violent crimes must submit DNA samples for inclusion in the national database. The District does not have its own local DNA database and can only access the federal system with the FBI’s aid. Meanwhile, a 15-year-old statewide database in Virginia has yielded significant results, leading to more than 3,000 matches in murders, sex crimes, and burglaries, according to Wainstein’s congressional testimony. Even when the District gets samples of felons’ DNA, there is no guarantee the evidence will make it into the national database quickly. As Wainstein noted during his congressional testimony, the FBI facility “cannot process all of the District’s no-suspect cases and all of the samples for the offender database and still do all of its other work.” What’s more, D.C. can’t fully utilize federal grant money for processing backlogged DNA or other sample material because the funding requires cities to have an accredited lab to enter the samples into the national database. The FBI is too overworked to take on that responsibility for the District. LITTLE MAYORAL SUPPORT Not long after Charles Ramsey was hired as D.C. police chief in 1998, he began talking about the need for a local crime lab. But it took six more years until 2004 for the City Council to approve $2.8 million in seed money for the project. Part of the push for a local lab was the FBI’s decision to move its forensic lab in 2003 from the District to Quantico, 35 miles south in Virginia. As part of the move, the FBI agreed to train 10 D.C. analysts and technicians and allow them to use the FBI facility to help process D.C. cases until a local lab opens. “It was kind of a win-win for both,” says the FBI’s Fram. But progress has been slow. Former D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson says part of the problem was that the District “didn’t really have a strong champion in the administration” of former Mayor Anthony Williams. In 2004, the District hired Kevin Miller to spearhead the training of a local forensic team under the agreement with the FBI. Miller began compiling lists of cases with untested evidence, but he had almost no budget and little decision-making authority, he says. He made proposals for improvements, but with so many agencies involved, he saw little progress. “Everyday it didn’t get better, and then one day it was just enough,” says Miller, who resigned after little more than a year to become a professor of forensic biochemistry at California State University in Fresno. Meanwhile, the program couldn’t keep its employees from quitting, with seven of 10 original hires leaving before completing the 18 months of training. The city has replaced them, but low salaries are still a major problem. Because federal labs pay more, D.C. specialists have many other higher-paying opportunities. Lojacono says the city is trying to raise salaries for local forensic examiners. “It’s not something you like to have happen,” he says about repeatedly losing hires. In November, the District signed up William Vosburgh to lead efforts to build the new crime lab. Vosburgh, a onetime dentist who recently worked for the U.S. military’s medical examiner’s office, spent a decade setting up a crime lab in Anne Arundel County, Md., and directing the lab in Prince George’s County, Md. Vosburgh’s first priority is to break ground for the D.C. lab, which will require demolishing a police station at 4th and School streets in Southwest D.C. The station will be moved to a nearby location. The city has hired the architectural firm HOK to design the new facility, and a request for bids from contractors to build the planned five-story, 240,000-square-foot building should be released next year. The District hopes to hire eight more DNA analysts once the lab opens. The D.C. Department of Health and the D.C. medical examiner’s office also plan to move into the facility if and when it is built. But funding for the estimated $200 million facility is a serious hurdle. Norton has secured almost $18 million and is requesting an additional $10 million this year from Congress. The District, which has already spent $14 million, hopes to contribute $150 million from its budget over the next three years — still millions short of the final price tag. The numerous delays worry crime victims like Deborah Evans-Bailey, whose 23-year-old daughter was shot in 2004 during the Labor Day weekend in front of Evans-Bailey’s home in Southeast Washington. The case has not been solved. While she doesn’t know if DNA or other forensic evidence would help capture her daughter’s killer, she believes more violent crimes would be solved if D.C. had its own crime lab. And since her daughter’s murder, Evans-Bailey has been outspoken on the issue. “It’s more about the future,” she says.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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