Crime & Courts

May 21, 2010

Wait for test results from Kansas DNA labs can be long

Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield depends on the Kansas Bureau of Investigation laboratories to unearth the evidence she needs to prosecute crimes.

Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield depends on the Kansas Bureau of Investigation laboratories to unearth the evidence she needs to prosecute crimes.

But the wait for results on forensic testing, such as DNA, can be a long one. The KBI crime labs have a backlog of about 650 cases with DNA evidence from crime scenes that still needs testing.

"For jurisdictions such as ours, the KBI is critical for us to do our jobs," Satterfield said.

The backlog represents roughly a third of the cases that the KBI labs in Kansas City, Topeka and Great Bend handle each year.

"We're subpoena driven at this point," said Mike Van Stratton, director of the KBI crime labs. "The ones with court dates get priority."

Evidence from the most violent crimes also get tested first: homicides, sexual assaults and other violent attacks.

It took the Newton Police, for example, four months to get identification and confirmation on blood found on shattered windows, when about 20 cars were broken into over two nights.

Sgt. Scott Powell said it didn't affect the case because the suspect confessed. If that had not happened, however, Powell said the wait would have hampered police's efforts to identify a suspect.

Thousands of items to be tested

The three KBI labs share nine full-time and one part-time DNA analyst positions, Van Stratton said.

That compares to four full-time DNA analysts at the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center in Wichita.

The lab handles about 350 DNA cases a year, said director Timothy Rohrig. Last week, Rohrig said the lab had a backlog of only four cases 60 days or older.

"And those are generally the complicated cases," Rohrig said.

Rohrig said he feels his laboratory has sufficient resources to keep up with the workload. But he added: "We have one county to take care of — the KBI takes care of 103."

Last year, the KBI received DNA testing requests on 1,797 cases, including homicides, sexual assaults, arsons, drug crimes, thefts and driving under the influence.

Among those cases, there were 39,280 items of evidence submitted for genetic analysis.

In 2009, there were 182 murder cases that needed DNA testing on 11,783 items.

Television dramas such as CSI have influenced juries to look for forensic lab evidence — even though those shows are fiction and rarely represent real life crime investigations.

"The jury expects this kind of evidence," Satterfield said. "It's really developed into a culture of its own."

Law may help funding

The 650 cases awaiting testing from crime scenes are from cases police are trying to solve or that don't yet have court dates.

Attorney General Steve Six said he's continuing to try to get more funding for the KBI labs to help cut down on the backlog of untested cases.

In April, Six said the governor signed a new law to help strengthen collection of the $100 fee required of every convicted felon in Kansas.

That money goes to help fund the KBI crime lab. But only 5 to 10 percent of felons actually pay.

"It was sometimes cut at sentencing, but by making the fee mandatory that should eliminate that," Six said. "Some will never be able to pay but those who can pay can now be pursued more vigorously."

Six is also asking county prosecutors to be more selective in evidence they send in for testing.

"Prosecutors tend to like to test everything," Six said. "But there needs to be some triage of evidence at the prosecutorial level to determine what is the most important evidence that needs to be tested."

Meeting deadlines

Satterfield, the Butler County attorney, said when she has needed DNA results from the KBI quickly, she's gotten them. She pointed to the recent murder case against Israel Mireles — who was convicted earlier this year of killing Emily Sander.

A year before the trial, Satterfield had to submit evidence to Mexico, where Mireles fled, for extradition purposes. The KBI lab put the evidence together.

"They worked exceptionally well with us on Mireles, and we had a quick deadline," Satterfield said.

In some of the smaller cases, however, Satterfield has found her self paying Sedgwick County to handle tests because of the KBI's backlog.

Last year, Satterfield said, her office spent $25,000 to send evidence to other labs.

"I personally feel an obligation to use the KBI lab as much as I can," Satterfield said. "Because the residents here pay state taxes for that, and I kind of hate to use their county taxes to pay for another service. But sometimes you need the evidence to even file charges."

Van Stratton, director of the KBI crime labs, said the KBI is making up ground.

"This time last year, we had a backlog of 1,000," Van Stratton said. "Now we're down to about 600. We have done better."

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