Crime lab crisis

‘Thousands’ of state rape kits untested

BY JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

150911_front04TALLAHASSEE – Attorney General Pam Bondi put added pressure Wednesday on lawmakers to increase funding for crime labs as she detailed a massive backlog of untested rape kits across the state.

“Those need to be tested because, hidden in those estimated thousands of untested rape kits, we have the potential to solve cold cases and lock up sexual predators and make Florida the safest place to live and raise a family,” Bondi said during a news conference at The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

Salary increases
Bondi’s news conference came as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is expected to request an additional $35 million in funding during the 2016 legislative session, including $7.76 million to raise the base salaries of people working in crime labs.

Rep. Janet Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican who attended Bondi’s news conference, said she is working on legislation that would establish standards related to when local agencies submit the test kits to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

DNA analysis similar to testing done in this file photo could help put rapists in jail. It could also exonerate convicted rapists who were unjustly incarcerated.(SONYA N. HERBERT/DALLAS MORNING NEWS/MCT)
DNA analysis similar to testing done in this file photo could help put rapists in jail. It could also exonerate convicted rapists who were unjustly incarcerated.
(SONYA N. HERBERT/DALLAS MORNING NEWS/MCT)

“When a victim of sexual assault has the very intrusive process of having DNA collected, they have a reasonable expectation that that DNA be tested,” Adkins said.

Bondi, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor, said there is a priority in testing, with homicide cases first and sexual assault cases second.

Leon County Sheriff’s Capt. Steven Harrelson said DNA evidence is important, as many criminals don’t remain in a single location.

“Having their DNA in the system allows us to go ahead and take these crimes that we don’t have any evidence but DNA … once the DNA gets put into the system, we’re able to solve it at that point,” Harrelson said.

Testing delays
In August, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s DNA/Biology labs completed testing requests in an average of 107 days. But as more local agencies submit untested kits, the turnaround time is expected to grow, agency spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said in an email.

The proposed pay increases – a $10,000 increase to the annual starting pay of crime-lab analysts and a $12,000 boost to the base pay for senior crime-lab analysts – are intended to make the agency more competitive with local law enforcement throughout Florida and the Southeast United States to help keep turnover rates down, agency Commissioner Rick Swearingen told Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on Aug. 5.

Over the past six years, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has seen 127 crime-lab analysts leave. The agency currently is funded for 193 crime-lab analysts and 69 senior analyst positions. The base pay for an analyst is $40,948 a year. A senior analyst starts at $43,507.

More requests
The increased demand at the crime labs is also in part boosted by an increase in requests from local agencies to investigate cases in which local police officers fire their weapons.

In the recently completed 2014-2015 budget year, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened 63 officer-involved shooting cases at other agencies, up from 48 a year earlier. The department started 29 such investigations in the 2010-2011-budget year, 52 in 2011-2012 and 67 the following year.

Needs analysis
The Florida Legislature this year didn’t back the agency’s request for $1.87 million to fill 14 full-time positions to assist in investigations stemming from police being involved in shootings.

Lawmakers, however, set aside $300,000 for an ongoing study to determine the needs of the crime labs, including the impact of the untested rape kits.

In addition to asking for money for the state crime labs, Bondi said the state might also look at using private labs to test the kits.

“We want to get the sufficient funding to have everything produced, because we feel we can increase arrests and convictions probably in the thousands, not only in Florida, but throughout the country.” Bondi said. “We can’t create standards without having the ability to carry those out.”

Though Bondi focused on rape convictions, DNA analysis has also freed hundreds of people who were wrongly convicted.

Cleared by rape kit
In 2013, serving a lengthy prison sentence for a rape he didn’t commit, Robert E. Nelson of Kansas City, Miss. asked a judge for DNA testing to prove his innocence. Twice since 2009, he was turned down.

In late 2011, Jackson County, Miss. prosecutors working through cold cases sought testing for a very different reason: to find Nelson’s accomplice. A few months later, as prosecutors were nearly finished with their testing, a judge approved Nelson’s newest request.

Evidence preserved
Semen and hair evidence, carefully preserved since the December 1983 home invasion rape and robbery of a 24-year-old Kansas City woman, linked two other men – not Nelson – to the crime.

In 2013, prosecutors and Midwest Innocence Project officials asked a judge to order Nelson’s release. He had served 30 years in prison, most of it for two unrelated convictions that still stand.

He had started serving a 70-year sentence on the rape conviction in 2006.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and Laura O’Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, waited to jointly announce Nelson’s release after the arrest of one of the new suspects. The other suspect was already in prison for a 1992 home invasion rape.

“If we had not found this mistake that occurred,” Baker said, “it’s likely he (Nelson) would have served out the rest of his sentence, and the real perpetrators would not have been identified.”

In June 2013, Nelson wore a wide grin and a new set of civilian clothes as he emerged from prison into the arms of joyous family members.

News Service of Florida Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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