Rochester, N.Y. – It’s been a year since Monroe County’s $23 million crime lab opened. The state-of-the-art lab was supposed to cut down on the backlog of cases needing evidence testing.
But a report from the State Inspector General that led to the firing of the lab director "identified the large backlog of cases awaiting DNA testing in the Monroe County Laboratory as an important matter." The report said backlogs are common nationwide and the office will do an examination of the issue at labs cross the state.
How the backlogs were handled is at the heart of the firing of Janet Anderson-Seaquist. She sent back to police and prosecutors 270 cases that had languished for years. She mistakenly said the statute of limitations had expired in 41 of the cases. Some agencies destroyed the evidence as a result.
"They were five years old. How could they be sitting around in that lab for five years and why is she being blamed for what happened to them?" said defense attorney John Parrinello, who said he had never met the former crime lab director.
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 needed 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.
Those 270 cases were pushed down. Parrinello and Rich say police and prosecutors share blame.
"There needed to be communication from the DA’s office, ‘We want these tested right away,’" Rich said. "In the absence of such communication, of course they’re going to get pushed to the bottom of the pile."
"Somebody has got to have some kind of system to say hey we submitted these five years ago…where’s the result?" Parrinello said.
Monroe County says in April 2012, 487 cases needed DNA testing. That compares to 994 cases in February 2005. In 2005, there were 18 staff members, including four biologists. Now there are 31 staff members, including 13 biologists.
Public Safety Director Steve Bowman notes it takes a year to train new biologists and they must be trained by another biologist who can be largely out of the mix during this time.
The county ramped up staffing and spending in 2008 and funding has stayed relatively flat since then. The 2012 budget cut funding by $500,000, though grants could come in later.
"If we have a brand new crime lab, and the budget is being decreased and the personnel portion of the budget is being decreased then they’re shorthanded and there’s going to be more backlogs," said Parrinello.
County Legislator Ted O’Brien wants to know how the backlog was being reduced.
"What we don’t know now is if that was being reduced because we’re getting better at moving cases along in the new facility," O’Brien said. "It appears that some of that backlog reduction may have been because they had given up on certain samples of evidence."