Some criminal investigations are in a holding pattern as a result of the deaccreditation of the state forensic crime lab in July, according to Michael P. Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top criminal justice adviser.
When the Connecticut Forensic Science Lab lost its national accreditation with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, it also lost its access to the FBI’s national database. As a result, the state can’t compare evidence found at a crime scene against a national pool if nothing turns up in the state databases, he said.
“Some trials are on hold temporarily while this gets worked out,” Lawlor said.
If it becomes necessary, samples can be sent to an accredited lab to be entered into the system. Massachusetts has an accredited crime lab and there are also private labs with access, he said.
However, the end of the year is typically a slow time in the court system, and Lawlor said he didn’t think any samples had to be sent out of state yet. He said it is not likely to be a problem, so long as the lab is re-accredited by mid-February.
He said the working group he heads to get the lab’s accreditation back has responded to all of the concerns of the accreditation agency and the FBI. It is likely the situation will be righted by sometime during the first two weeks of February, he said.
“If that’s not the case we’re going to have a serious problem on our hands,” he said.
The state lab in Meriden once attracted some of the nation’s leading forensic experts like Dr. Henry Lee. But years of neglect and underfunding have caused a gradual breakdown and led to a tremendous backlog of evidence waiting to be processed, Lawlor said.
“Unfortunately the poor administrative decisions went right up the chain to governor’s office,” he said, referring to administrations before Malloy’s.
The working group is in the process of making recommendations aimed at remedying the problems. Unlike other states, where errors have been made in the forensic work, Connecticut’s problems are related to red tape and paperwork, he said.
The group will recommend the a full-time position be created at the lab to work as a liaison with local police departments, he said. Currently, the scientists who should be processing evidence are also tasked with talking to police, he said.
The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection has also issued guidelines to police departments designed to reduce the volume of evidence that arrives at the lab for analysis, he said. Departments often send far more evidence than necessary, he said. The guidelines spell out how much evidence should be forwarded to the lab for various different crimes.
While they do not forbid departments from submitting evidence, he said they ask departments to use common sense when deciding what to send. Lawlor used the theft of a mountain bike as an example of when not to send a lot of evidence.
“In theory you could send a whole box of stuff to the crime lab to see if there is DNA evidence somewhere, and there may be,” he said. But it adds to the lab’s backlog, he added.
In an email, Redding Police Chief Douglas S. Fuchs, chairman of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said it was disappointing that the crime lab had still not been re-accredited. However, he said he recognized that submissions from municipal police departments make up a large percentage of the lab’s work and contribute to the backlog. He said they are committed to helping to rectify the situation.
“…while we would have hoped that all evidence submitted for analysis could be handled in a timely manner, we do realize that at this time, resources being what they are, that is not an option and have asked all of our departments to work within the parameters of this spreadsheet,” he said. “It is our collective anticipation that cases which need a priority will be handled as such.”
In September, Lawlor estimated that lab would be re-accredited by sometime in October. On Wednesday, he said the group found that the lab’s problems were more deep-seated than originally thought. The process was also complicated by a breakdown in communications between “our people” and the accreditation people, he said.
Lawlor said he expects success this time.
“Now we have a clear sense of what the problems are,” he said.