This year the legislature, facing a tight budget, must make some tough decisions on funding priorities. One priority should stand out, that is adequate funding for the Connecticut Forensics Science Laboratory — often referred to as the state police crime lab — so that it can do DNA testing in a timely fashion.
In 2011, the crime lab was in turmoil. DNA tests to identify suspects in criminal investigations were often delayed for years because of lack of adequate resources. In addition, the lab lost its accreditation with the FBI, thus becoming unable to post and share DNA profiles nationally. This meant that any DNA samples taken in Connecticut could not be compared with forensic samples of DNA left at crime scenes outside of Connecticut, and vice versa.
Last year, in response to these problems, the governor reorganized the management of the crime lab and funded 15 new positions to fill expired federally-funded positions. He hired 19 new staffers and committed to hire 14 new ones. The Governor also appointed a new director to run the lab.
The crime lab should set a new goal of testing DNA evidence in days instead of years. The prompt testing of DNA will result in the identification of criminal suspects, prevent future crimes, and also help clear innocent suspects.
A recent case in West Hartford illustrates the need for prompt DNA testing. On November 10, 2009, a jewelry store in West Hartford was burglarized and $51,000 worth of jewelry and watches were stolen. The burglars struck in the early morning hours; they broke a window, rushed in, smashed display cases and made off with what was there. They moved quickly, grabbing items that weren’t placed in store safes.
As part of its investigation, West Hartford police then contacted police in nearby communities to identify similar crimes. Eventually the West Hartford crime was linked to similar burglaries in Farmington, South Windsor, Bristol, Fairfield, Orange, and in Lee and Westfield, Massachusetts. Detectives in West Hartford worked with detectives in the seven other towns to solve these crimes.
Fortunately, in the West Hartford burglary, one of the suspects left behind physical evidence containing his DNA. The evidence was turned over to the crime lab for analysis. Unfortunately, it took until December 2011, more than three years after the crime was committed, for the lab to analyze the DNA evidence and to identify a suspect. When a match was made, the suspect was promptly arrested and the case is now pending in Superior Court.
The state might have saved some money with the staffing levels that led to the three-year delay in the DNA testing, but think of the cost to the eight towns that had detectives working those three years trying to solve the case. And think of how many crimes could have been prevented if a DNA analysis had been promptly performed.
In another case in West Hartford, a burglar this past February pleaded guilty for his part in a $283,000 burglary of a jewelry store in June 2010. In that case, the burglar left behind a water bottle with his DNA. The crime lab matched the water bottle DNA to the suspect. That case resulted in a conviction in less than three years from the date of the offense, but it could have been solved much sooner with a prompt DNA analysis.
An exciting development in DNA analysis is the dramatic improvement in equipment. There is new testing equipment awaiting certification by the FBI that will reduce the time necessary to test DNA from the current 12 to 20 hours, to 90 minutes. This will dramatically increase the number of DNA analyses that can be done each day by the crime lab. The operation of the new equipment is much simpler and will require less training for operators than the current equipment. As part of the funding of the crime lab, it is important to provide adequate funds to purchase the most modern and up to date equipment.
It is clear that adequate funding of the crime lab will result in prompt identification of criminal suspects, preventing future crimes and preventing misidentifications of suspects. The legislature needs to continue its commitment to the crime lab to make our society safer while controlling the cost of law enforcement. •