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LAPD clears backlog of untested DNA evidence [Updated]

April 27, 2011 |  2:25 pm

After 2 1/2 years chipping away at a backlog of untested DNA evidence collected in thousands of rape cases that spanned decades, Los Angeles officials Wednesday announced that all of the potentially vital evidence has been analyzed.

The milestone was checked somewhat by the fact that a new backlog of several hundred recent cases has continued to grow as the department slowly increases the size of its laboratory staff in order to keep pace with the constant demand for testing.

"Today, we pledge to never let justice wait like this again,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking at a City Hall news conference with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, City Council President Eric Garcetti and other elected officials. “For every sexual assault evidence kit, there is an individual -– a mother, a daughter, a friend -– who rightfully deserves justice. We recognize that there is still a lot of work to accomplish."

DNA In late 2008, under pressure from victim-advocacy groups, Beck's predecessor, William J. Bratton, acknowledged and vowed to address the thousands of pieces of DNA evidence that had sat untouched for years.

Bratton assigned Beck, then a deputy chief, to oversee the project, and Beck sent dozens of detectives into storage freezers to inventory the lot.

The department counted 6,132 untested rape kits, which contained samples of semen, blood, hair or other genetic material collected from victims' bodies and crime scenes. Analysis of the material can help identify perpetrators by matching DNA to the genetic profiles of felons stored in law enforcement databases.

Amid the city's worsening fiscal crisis, the endeavor to test the huge amount of evidence quickly became a financial quandary.

Police officials cobbled together a few million dollars in federal grants, public funds and private donations to afford the costs of outsourcing the testing to private labs. The mayor and police officials also pressed the City Council for permission to add more analysts to the LAPD's lab despite a citywide hiring freeze.

Earlier this year, LAPD officials announced all of the backlogged kits had been tested, but said nearly 500 were still awaiting a final review by LAPD staff, which is required by federal guidelines.

Without that review, the DNA profile extracted from the evidence cannot be uploaded to the law enforcement databases to search for a perpetrator's identity.  On Wednesday, officials said that process has been completed.

The effort has paid dividends. City Controller Wendy Greuel alluded to analysts making about 1,000 matches between DNA profiles found in the rape kits and those stored in the databases. Beck clarified that in many of the cases the person identified by the DNA match had already been convicted of the crime.

Beck said he did not know how exactly many new identifications and arrests had been made because of the backlog testing, but he put the total in the "dozens."

As it has continued to ship evidence kits out to private labs, the LAPD has slowly but steadily been hiring and training new analysts for its in-house DNA laboratory.

Since the start of 2009, the lab has nearly doubled in size to 78 people, the mayor said.  Until it reaches its ultimate target of 98 analysts, however, the LAPD conceded that the lab will not be able to keep up with the constant influx of new evidence.

Currently, evidence from 668 cases sits untested -– a total that has grown from about 400 in February -- and 134 other kits are awaiting the final review by LAPD staff. Continued outsourcing will allow the LAPD to catch up with the new backlog sometime this summer, said Yvette Sanchez-Owens, commanding officer of the LAPD's Scientific Investigation Division. 

[Updated at 5:10 p.m.: LAPD officials clarified that the number of sexual assault kits from recent cases that have not yet been tested is only 30, not 668, as was indicated in the figures provided by the mayor’s office.  The remaining 638 cases are in various stages of the testing process.]



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-- Joel Rubin at Los Angeles City Hall

Top photo: Barri Worth, an aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, left, and LAPD Det. Gus Villanueva prepare a placard Wednesday for a news conference announcing the elimination of a backlog of untested sexual assault kits. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Bottom photo: Evidence packets containing DNA await testing in an L.A. cold storage locker in 2007.  Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times