For five years, my wife worked in the Monroe County Crime Lab. She remains friendly with some of the staff. For that reason, I keep professional distance from stories involving the lab, and particularly stories about law enforcement politics. I report on the lab when I know there is no potential for bias, but often, I choose to allow my colleagues to cover such stories.
It has been difficult to watch the public try to digest what is going on right now in the lab. After all, an Inspector General's report (which comes at the request of another agency, such as the DA's office), makes it sound like vicious and almost willful negligence has been flowing from the lab for two years.
Here's the problem: Few people know how backlogs work, or what analysts are up against, or how the lab interacts with other agencies. The lab becomes an easy target.
Morale at the lab was low when the county brought in a fresh face in Janet Anderson-Seaquist. She might have been surprised to find out that on occasion, local law enforcement seems to believe what it sees on television, asking for evidence overnight in some cases. Or, as was worded in a letter from Monroe County's First Assistant District Attorney, "immediately" in 41 separate cases, regardless of other cases that had priority.
So the lab becomes easy to push around. Agencies bang on the desk, demanding "immediate" testing and then complain when it can't be done. (This is certainly not true all the time, nor most of the time, and does not denigrate the fine police and prosecutorial work routinely done in this county.)
Start with that picture in your mind, then consider the fact that the Monroe County Crime Lab, just like almost every crime lab in the country, is bogged down by backlogs in just about every section. I reported on this situation years ago, when Monroe County's backlog -- more than 600 cases in DNA, hundreds more in firearms, trace, and drugs -- mirrored surrounding counties.
There simply aren't enough analysts currently employed to get the work done. There is no disputing that. The District Attorney's office understands this, despite the demand to "immediately" process 41 older cases. The county built a sparkling new laboratory, which has been praised -- rightly so -- by just about everyone. But the county did not fill it with the requisite analysts to clear backlogs. Perhaps the public perception was that the latest technology would be good enough, and in some cases, that technology allows things to get done more quickly. However, that's not nearly enough to process the backlogs.
Fighting backlogs involves two prongs: staffing and funding. A simple google search reveals crime labs swamped across the country. A quick sampling of how other labs are confronting their problems: The Los Angeles Police Department decided it had to hire 33% more staff. The Arkansas State Crime Lab added staff and decided to re-prioritize, essentially meaning some property crime cases would never get done. Here in Monroe County, a wonderful new building requires staff, yes, but also funding -- from various sources, sometimes in the form of grants -- and this is not a consistent or even predictable stream.
And so here's what happens: Some cases get priority, some don't. Some cases move toward prosecution, while others never see a suspect identified. The lab works with priority requests all the time. My wife routinely worked extra hours, desperate to meet priority requests while still chipping away at backlogs. The analysts in the lab know it's a mountain they won't climb as the lab is currently set up, but they try, every day.
When the new lab was getting ready to open, the backlog issue resurfaced. In other counties, labs have been praised for cutting down backlogs. How have they done it? Often, they identify old cases that have gone nowhere or have gone past the statute of limitations. They don't destroy the evidence in those cases, but they essentially send the evidence back to police in order to clear space. In Monroe County, Anderson-Seaquist apparently decided it was appropriate to take a similar approach with older cases, 270 in total.
This is where things get a bit murky. According to the IG's report, it was police, not the crime lab, that destroyed the evidence in some of those older cases. The IG's report blames the crime lab, saying that the lab's decision to send back the evidence might have convinced police to destroy it. But keep in mind: No one ever instructed police to destroy evidence. In fact, the lab sent a note indicating that police could have the evidence analyzed upon request if it was still of interest. But according to the IG's report, police went ahead and destroyed evidence anyway.
Some local departments tell me that they would not destroy evidence in this scenario, and would only do so after consulting with the DA's office. Apparently other departments felt it was fine to destroy evidence without checking with the proseuctors. There has been no call for either discipline or a review of these police actions.
That brings us back to the letter from the First Assistant District Attorney Kelly Wolford to Anderson-Seaquist. After these 270 older cases generated little interest for years, suddenly the DA's office was very interested. They decided that 41 cases were not outside the statute of limitations and the evidence could still be viable. That letter, which was ostenisbly a private letter to Anderson-Seaquist, contained dramatic language proclaiming that the lab was letting violent criminals "roam the streets, free to prey on additional victims." It was the kind of dramatic language more commonly used in public speeches, not private memos, and 13WHAM has learned that the letter was copied and sent to all local police chiefs. Several police officers tell me they found the language "ridiculous," designed to publicly embarrass. The letter demanded that the lab "immediately" process the evidence in those 41 cases.
Either the District Attorney's office does not understand how evidence processing works, or the First Assistant simply wanted to make a point. Either way, the public is left with the impression that the lab could simply drop everything and quickly process 41 old cases.
It is not only impossible, it is impractical, given that those cases were not high priorities. Then the public, which sees prosecutors demanding immediate action on 41 old cases, concludes that crime labs are -- in the words of my colleague Sean Carroll -- "dry cleaners, where you drop something off today and pick it up in 48 hours." Our social media is blowing up with viewers who wonder why the crime lab doesn't just "clear out the backlog."
All of this leads my colleague Rachel Barnhart to wonder if this was simply a campaign to discredit Anderson-Seaquist, who was willing to push prosecutors to be more efficient in their requests of evidence processing.
That's not to say that Anderson-Seaquist didn't err. She concedes as much in the IG's report; cases involving statutes of limitations can be tricky, and Anderson-Seaquist could have consulted with others before deciding which cases were in that category. But the fact remains that her actions are hardly dissimilar to those undertaken by many labs around the country.
Anderson-Seaquist, or any director, ultimately has to interact with other top officials. In Monroe County, those officials felt that Anderson-Seaquist was too flippant, or too reckless. But reading the IG's report and listening to the comments of top prosecutors, it's easy to understand why the staff in that lab might feel thrown under a very large bus. To be clear: It is irresponsible to make the public believe that the local crime lab is flippantly or arbitrarily ignoring cases and choosing to let violent offenders "roam the streets". That is dangerously unfair to the overworked staff.
Take the recent case of Matthew Townsend. He strangled Toccara Harmon then stuffed her body into a garbage tote. News reports, supplied with information from the DA's office, indicated that the lab just would not test a key piece of evidence -- the handle of that tote. That certainly sounds negligent. What gets missed is the fact that the lab had already processed dozens of pieces of evidence from multiple forensic disciplines for this case, which became a legal slam dunk. The DA's office already had DNA evidence linking the defendant to the victim's neck. It's unclear why all of this evidence was not enough for prosecutors, but nonetheless, the DA's office wanted more done -- despite the cost, and despite the backlogs. The evidence was already a slam dunk, and the garbage tote could have actually undermined the prosecution's case, because if it came back with a mix of many people's DNA, the defense could argue that you can't directly link one person to the crime. (The crime lab is neutral on characterization of evidence; "slam dunk" is my phrase for a case that was loaded with evidence.)
Prosecutors continue to slam the crime lab for declining to process the garbage tote. Yet you haven't seen a single quote from one of the lab's staff, barking back in the media. It's the equivalent of a kid kicked to the ground, then kicked again, lying there and taking the punishment without trying to defend himself. And that's to say nothing of the fact that none of the crime lab staff that I know personally has ever even mentioned the details of an active case in my presence. Now, I don't spend a whole lot of time with those I've met from the lab, but on occasion, we'll see one another socially. They will not even respond to an off-the-record question or a remark in jest. The ethos in that lab is clear: All professional, all the time.
So where does that leave us? Local police privately suggest that crime lab analysts, who routinely work with prosecutors to explain how certain evidence might play during trial, not be able to decline to process individual pieces of evidence, no matter how excessive the requests from the DA's office are. That could lead the crime lab to see even more evidence to process, further affecting the backlog. But clearly, Anderson-Seaquist's stance in such matters caused friction.
County Public Safety Director Steve Bowman has promised reforms, but the way to address a backlog comes down to staffing. We've seen this in dozens of labs across the country. Communities can prioritize crime analysis by spending more to hire analysts, or they can tolerate ongoing backlogs. In most cases in this country, it's the latter.
For now, Firearms section director John Clark has the temporary head job. He's a man who fits exactly the model I just mentioned: Quiet, respected, with a reputation for dogged hard work and professionalism. If history is a guide to how these things go, Clark is the logical next director, if he wants the position. His will be a very challenging job, and a vital one.