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Thursday, July 31, 2014

DNA backlog could hurt public safety

BY RON SYLVESTER
The Wichita Eagle

Connected to the crime scene by DNA on a cigarette butt, Kenneth Eugene Wilson was convicted last summer of murdering a Kansas farmer.

Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, who prosecuted the case, said the genetic match on the cigarette butt found at the Osborne County farm came from a criminal database containing Wilson's DNA profile.

But Six wonders whether the crime would have gone unsolved if Wilson's DNA had been one of more than 30,000 backlogged at the state crime lab by a law that has produced an avalanche of new tests.

Six said the delay in DNA processing could hamper police in solving crimes and jeopardize public safety.

"I think most Kansans as a whole would have said, 'You had the DNA sample and you couldn't process it? That's not keeping our communities safe,' " Six said.

The 2008 law mandated DNA samples for people arrested in Kansas on felony charges and some misdemeanors. But the funding envisioned by lawmakers didn't materialize, leaving Kansas Bureau of Investigation scientists struggling to keep up.

"We were overwhelmed," said Mike Van Stratton, director of the KBI Crime Lab.

All states require DNA testing of convicted sex offenders, and all but five call for anyone found guilty of a felony to submit a sample, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. In 2008, Kansas and 15 other states passed laws mandating DNA samples from people when they are arrested.

Samples flowing into the KBI lab jumped from a few hundred to about 1,500 a month.

The type of samples also changed.

Under the old law, Van Stratton said, convicted felons submitted blood samples. Now, DNA samples are taken by swabbing a cotton tip inside a person's cheek to collect cells.

As new samples came in, it created the backlog, which also slowed processing of blood samples.

"We could handle 1,500 a month if we didn't have the backlog," Van Stratton said.

Processing the swabs required new equipment, which needed to be tested and certified before it could generate profiles.

"We had to shut everything down while we did that," Van Stratton said.

To pay for it all, the Legislature required every convicted felon in Kansas to pay a $100 fee for DNA processing. But Six said only 5 to 10 percent of those fees have been collected.

People go to prison and don't pay, Six said. A large number of felons go on probation and don't pay their fees.

Even collecting half the fees would help, Van Stratton said.

"I looked at one case where they were sending $10 month to pay it," Van Stratton said. "I think what we need to do is make sure we get that funding because that would take care of a lot of our problems."

The KBI has one part-time and three full-time DNA scientists working on samples for the state's database. Hiring a new DNA analyst requires 18 months to two years of training and certification tests before that person is qualified to begin testing under federal guidelines, Van Stratton said.

DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is found in the nucleus of cells. It supplies hereditary information that determines individual traits in living organisms.

Once DNA is extracted from a cell, a profile is generated to provide the individual's genetic identity. Those profiles have to be reviewed before they go into the data bank for use by police.

"It actually goes through two reviews, and that's what takes the most time," Van Stratton said.

By paying overtime and stretching resources, Van Stratton said the lab hopes to have the 10,000 older blood samples processed by Feb. 1.

The KBI received one federal grant to send some 7,500 samples to other labs for processing, and the state recently received another $700,000 to help pay for equipment and overtime.

"We're doing the best we can with the resources we have," Van Stratton said. "With the change in technology, as well as the statute, it was more overwhelming than what we anticipated."

Six hopes to see more enforcement for fees by courts and may seek legislative help.

He hopes the lab can get caught up before a criminal slips away.

"It's a problem that's not going to be solved quickly," Six said.

Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or rsylvester@wichitaeagle.com.

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