State police crime lab crisis prompts emergency review

With two preliminary federal audits bringing a quietly brewing crisis to a boil at the state police crime lab, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a crash effort Thursday to find immediate and long-term fixes for the nation’s worst backlog of forensic DNA testing.

Malloy had made the backlog a campaign issue last year, and his administration already had been redirecting funding to stave off the departure of forensic scientists as grant funding ended. But scathing new audits prompted Malloy to assemble a new expert panel

“The audit was the catalyst for this, that’s for sure,” said Michael P. Lawlor, the administration official in charge of criminal justice policy and planning. “We can’t wait any longer. Now, some defense attorney’s are suggesting problems with evidence, which is not the case.”

The audits were first reported Tuesday by The Courant.

Lawlor, the former long-time co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, will lead the new panel, whose members include scientists, prosecutors and defense lawyers, a police chief, a former U.S. attorney and a retired FBI supervisor who had conducted similar reviews of crime labs.

“I want our crime lab to once again be the model for other states to emulate,” Malloy said in prepared statement.  “This can be done, even in difficult fiscal times. There are many efficiencies which can be achieved.  For example, police, prosecutors and judges can and should reach consensus on how to prioritize requests for testing.”

The issues are complicated and varied, involving law, science, budgeting and potential turf battles, he said. One question, Lawlor said, is should the lab remain under the control of the state police or become independent.

Malloy took office in January facing an estimated budget deficit of more than $3 billion, and state police officials quickly made clear that some of the lab’s budget deficiencies had been hidden by a reliance on federal grants that were about expire.

“As soon as we got in, we started meeting with the state police,” Lawlor said. “They started painting a bleak picture, a really bleak picture.”

Lawlor said administration officials were told that a number of forensic scientists, including DNA analysts and firearms experts, were looking for new positions, aware that funding for their jobs would expire on June 30. To save their job for another near would cost $719,821.

As an undersecretary in the Office of Policy and Management, which is the state’s planning and budget agency, Lawlor said he was able to redirect every discretionary dollar that state was receiving in criminal-justice grants to the lab. That will maintain staffing for another year.

Lawlor said he redirected the funds with the support of the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission, whose members represent all segments of the criminal justice system. Lawlor said they understood that his action meant their agencies would have no access to grant funds for a year.

On March 24, Lawlor and other members of the Commission was given a briefing on the lab that foreshadowed the federal audits.

The lab had 3,901 unstarted forensic cases involving DNA analysis. With about 600 other cases in progress, the total DNA backlog topped 4,500 cases. Even worse, with delays of more than three years for tests, some cases risked hitting a statute of limitations.

Beginning in April 2014, officials projected that the lab would be so overextended that approximately 120 felony cases a month would be lost to the statute of limitations over the DNA backlog.

Lawlor said the challenges to the lab were twofold: a failure by the previous administration to fill jobs, and an explosion in the amount of evidence submitted for forensice testing by municipal police departments.

“A lot of it is due to what people refer to as ‘the C.S.I. effect,’ ” Lawlor said, a reference to the popular television shows in which DNA, fingerprint and firearm analysis are ordered up like fast-food meals.

From January 2005 to January 2009, annual forensic and toxicology case submissions from municipal police departments rose sharply, from about 2,800 to 3,800. State police submissions rose only slightly.

Lawlor said one job for the new study panel will be to establish guidelines for how forensic testing should be prioritized, or even under what circumstances should tests be ordered.

To meet the current caseload, the state police estimate they need 35 additional scientists at an annual cost of $3.7 million.

The lab’s needs include 13 DNA analysts, four computer experts, three firearms examiners, and three toxicologists.

Some of the backlogs: nine months for a forensic biology report,18 months for an evaluation of fibers or other trace evidence, three years for DNA and four years for firearms.

The members of the new panel are:

  • Kevin Kane, Chief State’s Attorney
  • Reuben Bradford, Commissioner, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection
  • Maj. William R. Podgorski, Connecticut State Police
  • Karen Goodrow, Director, Connecticut Innocence Project
  • Tim Palmbach PhD., Chairman, Department of Forensic Sciences, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven and former Director of Connecticut Forensic Science Law and Commanding Officer for Scientific Services, Connecticut State Police
  • Daryl Roberts, Chief, Hartford Police Department
  • Robert J. Devlin, Jr., Chief Administrative Judge, Criminal Division of the Superior Court
  • Nora Dannehy, Deputy Attorney General
  • Monique M. Ferraro, Principal, Technology Forensics, LLC
  • Michael Wolf, Former Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Linda Strausbaugh PhD., Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut
  • Alex V. Hernandez, Criminal Defense Attorney and former Supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorney and Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan
  • Michael Lawlor, Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, Office of Policy and Management
  • Sen. Eric Coleman, Co-Chair, Judiciary Committee, (Senate Minority Leader’s selection)
  • Rep. Gerald Fox, III, Co-Chair, Judiciary Committee (House Speaker’s selection)
  • Sen. Michael McLachlan (Senate Minority Leader’s selection)
  • Rep. Themis Klarides, Deputy Minority Leader (House Minority Leader’s selection)