Canadians and Americans failing to meet target processing times for thousands of forensic DNA samples
By Jeffrey M. Perkel | May 21, 2007
Canadian and American forensic DNA labs are facing a backlog of thousands of DNA samples, missing target turnaround times and frustrating the lawyers and suspects who depend on the data.
A report released this month by the Auditor General of Canada has criticized the Forensic Laboratory Services (FLS) of the Canadian police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), for long delays in completing DNA forensic testing work.
The average FLS turnaround time for a biological sample in 2005-06 was 114 days, up from 91 days in 2003-04, and nearly four times the target turnaround time of 30 days for routine cases.
The FLS sample backlog grew from 663 in April 2003 to 873 in March 2006, not counting a queue of 760 cases that the RCMP has not yet accepted.
American forensic DNA specialists are facing an even larger sample queue. According to Robert Fram, Chief of the Scientific Analysis Section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory, the DNA forensics lab in Quantico, Va., has a backlog of about 1,700 cases, and receives some 1,500 new cases (each of which may have from one to 50 samples or more) per year from federal, state, and local agencies.
The average turnaround time for a case is about one year, Fram told The Scientist. The target turnaround time, said Special Agent Ann Todd, of the laboratory's Office of Public Affairs, is approximately 60 days.
"Any delay presents problems for the proper administration of justice," said Edmond O'Neill, a criminal defense attorney in Edmonton, Alberta, who has tried a number of cases involving DNA evidence.
Delays impair both the prosecution and the defense of a crime, O'Neill said, as memories fade, witnesses die, become ill, or move away, all while suspects remain either detained in custody, or live with the uncertainty of their fate.
After a February 2005 murder, for instance, DNA evidence didn't come in until late spring of the next year. "The trial starts next month," he said.
Despite the current backlog, US state and federal officials are planning to collect more DNA samples from crimes. "If you double the number of cases and you don't double the number of analysts you're going to have a problem," said Moses Schanfield, chair of the department of forensic sciences at George Washington University, Washington DC.
A spokesperson from the FBI confirmed that the agency plans to expand DNA collection to include federal arrestees and detainees, but these samples are processed by a different group in the FBI lab than the group that processes criminal cases, where the backlog exists.
"We continue to implement new technologies, including the use of robotics, in order to increase our productivity," the spokesperson said in an Email. "We would like to hire additional personnel," and the agency is asking for "additional resources."
The FBI takes care of higher-priority cases sooner than samples from less urgent cases, FBI's Fram stressed. "If we absolutely had to have something done in two days, we could do that. But you cannot do that for every case."
The target turnaround time for urgent biology requests to the RCMP -- those involving terrorism, for instance -- is 15 days. FLS met this goal for 132 of 134 requests, but these requests represent just 1% of the RCMP's total caseload.
And the RCMP's situation may not be as dire as the report suggests, according to Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. Some labs the report used for comparison measure turnaround time as the time from receipt of the first sample, while others measure from receipt of the final sample, he noted.
Forensic DNA testing at the FBI and elsewhere involves polymerase chain reaction of variable number tandem repeat loci -- 13 such loci for the FBI -- that, in aggregate, identify or exonerate a suspect. The FBI lab has some 30 scientists conducting nuclear DNA analysis for criminal casework.
The UK, in contrast, has no backlog and processes all DNA samples within days, according to Pete Johnson, a sales manager at Forensic Science Service, one of the government-owned companies that handles forensic DNA samples.
With more than 100 personnel involved in processing DNA casework, FSS can turn samples around in three to seven days, Johnson told The Scientist.
However, the FSS faced criticisms this week when it emerged that the company failed to include nearly 30,000 DNA profiles in the national database for up to nine years, an oversight that may have left nearly 200 crimes undetected, according to the Guardian.
In a written statement, Canada's FLS attributed some of its delays to the time required to train new staff (the biology unit staff increased from 85 to 110 between 2003 and 2006). The agency has since added up to 70 new staff, and received funding for a new DNA-processing facility in Edmonton, Alberta. FLS officials were unable to comment for this article.
Jeffrey M. Perkel
Links within this article:
V. Brower, "DNA and the Holocaust," The Scientist, September, 2006.
A Norton, "DNA databases: The new Dragnet," The Scientist, April 11, 2005.
Management of Forensic Laboratory Services - Royal Canadian Mounted Police
P. McGeehan, "New York plan for DNA data in most crimes," New York Times, May 14, 2007.
J. Preston, "US set to begin vast expansion in DNA testing," New York Times, February 5, 2007.
The Forensic Science Service
A. Travis and S. Laville, "Home Office left 26,000 DNA profiles off database," Guardian, May 18, 2007.