Monroe County First Assistant District Attorney Kelly Wolford took issue with a number of items in my analysis -- click here -- from earlier today, and sought to clarify some things. Wolford wrote a letter to the director of the Monroe County Crime Lab, Janet Anderson-Seaquist, which was excerpted in a state report. Anderson-Seaquist was fired earlier this week.
Wolford stressed to me that the DA's office "heavily supports the hard-working staff at the crime lab," and the DA's office only issue was with the director. On the quality of the work done by the crime lab
"This was never about the individual analysts," Wolford told me. "It's a misperception that we don't support or appreciate the lab. The lab does excellent work."On the 41 cases that Anderson-Seaquist decided were past the statute of limitation -- but weren't
"The first time we saw those 270 cases was when the paperwork arrived in our office (last year)," Wolford said. "That's it. It's not that we knew about these cases and didn't want to pursue them." Wolford explained that the DA's office worked "tirelessly to sort through those cases," eventually determining that 41 cases were still viable. "At that point, we wanted to move quickly because in many of those cases, there wasn't much time before the statute did come up."
However, some of those 41 cases had no statute of limitation. Why, then, did Wolford write in her letter to Seaquist that she wanted all 41 cases processed "immediately," even though Wolford knows the crime lab is dealing with huge backlogs? Wolford said that her letter was a long one, only parts of which were excerpted in the state report. That letter went on to say that some cases were running out of time, while others had no time limit, but she wanted the work prioritized. In retrospect, "immediately" looks like the wrong choice of words, considering the lab has more case work than it can handle.
(By the way, I reported earlier that Wolford's letter was copied and sent to all local police chiefs; Wolford clarified that it was only sent to chiefs whose departments submitted casework in question.)On the reasons those 41 cases were never processed years ago
Wolford indicated that the lab could use a fresh look at how it prioritizes casework, and she said those discussions are already happening at various levels. "I care very much about making sure stranger rape cases get processed," Wolford said. "We were getting, say, a car break-in in Greece from the lab. I don't know why we weren't getting those violent crimes, but that's why we moved so quickly once they were brought to our attention." Regarding the lab's case priorities, Wolford added, "Ultimately the lab has to decide how it wants to handle that. That's not our call."On her word choice in the letter to Anderson-Seaquist
I told Wolford I had never seen a public official use such dramatic language in a memo or letter that wasn't meant for public consumption. She described violent criminals "roaming the streets" and "preying on additional victims" due to lab mistakes. Wolford replied that her letter was indeed meant to remain private, and she tends to speak colorfully and directly, even in memos. On the problem with backlogs
I asked Wolford if the crime lab needs more analysts to handle the caseload. "Absolutely, yes," she said. "They do a great job, but they can't do everything." Wolford said the county would be wise to create more positions because the load is so heavy.
Anderson-Seaquist brought a sterner stance to the lab regarding evidence. She believed that the DA's office occasionally asked for too much. Wolford says that's wrong.
"We would not ask the lab to process evidence that we don't need," Wolford said. "We have too much respect for what they do to ask them to do that. We know what they're up against."
The problem, Wolford explained, is the kind of "CSI effect" on juries. That refers to juries that might expect real-life prosecutors to have all the evidence -- and quickly -- just like they do on television. "It's a great burden on everyone, including us," Wolford said. "We have to try to figure out when a jury might decide there's reasonable doubt. We have to guard against that." For that reason, cases that perhaps required less evidence processing in the past now require more work.
That was the situation facing prosecutors in the recent case of Matthew Townsend, a man who strangled a woman and left her body in a garbage tote. The evidence seemed, to this reporter anyway, to be heavily stacked against Townsend. It appeared to be a kind of slam dunk, long before prosecutors asked the lab to process the handle of that garbage tote. Wolford told me she "could not disagree more," and said that the garbage tote turned out to be the key piece of evidence that convinced the jury of Townsend's guilt.
"There has to be a group approach," Wolford said. "We appreciate the experience that crime lab employees have in trial, and we work with them." However, Wolford was concerned that the lab was increasingly challenging the DA's office about evidence submission under the leadership of Anderson-Seaquist.
By the way, for more detail on the backlog issue, see my colleague Rachel Barnhart's story here
. Barnhart spoke to former ADA Matt Rich. From Barnhart's piece:
Anderson-Seaquist started at the lab in January 2010. Former prosecutor Matt Rich said when she took over, she asked prosecutors to justify why every piece of evidence they submitted needed to be tested. Some assistant district attorneys resented being questioned.
"If they test every single item, it's almost impossible," Rich said, referring to the lab's manpower. "They needed to justify or understand why they're testing a certain thing. I never had a problem with that."
Rich said cases that need priority testing got pushed to the front.
"Those are going to get handled at the lab first, versus if there's just a sample on file to be tested, it's just going to get pushed down," Rich said... "There needed to be communication from the DA's office, 'We want these tested right away.' In the absence of such communication, of course they're going to get pushed to the bottom of the pile."
Wolford's point is that something needs to change to make sure urgent cases don't end up on the bottom of the pile. She said recent dialogue has been productive, and she's optimistic that everyone -- the DA's office, police agencies, and the crime lab -- will work together smoothly in the future.