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Connecticut crime lab wins accreditation bid

Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – The Connecticut crime lab where U.S. auditors identified multiple problems last year won its professional accreditation back Tuesday, a step hailed by the governor as a sign of a turnaround at a site that has struggled with a huge backlog of cases.

The forensic lab in Meriden gained national prominence under the direction of famed scientist Henry Lee, but Justice Department audits last year raised questions about its supervision, evidence control, data security, quality assurance and DNA test validation techniques.

A board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors voted Tuesday to restore the state lab’s accreditation. Work at the lab never stopped, but the loss of the certification played a role in cutting off the state’s access to national DNA databanks run by the FBI.

“As I’ve said before, prior years of allowing dwindling resources for the lab resulted in an intolerable backlog and undermined our criminal justice system,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said. “My administration will continue its efforts to implement improved procedures and provide the critical resources necessary, so that once again the crime lab will be a national model.”

The most significant issue to arise from the federal audits was the loss of access to the DNA databanks, which allow forensic experts to compare DNA samples with evidence found at crime scenes in other states. Michael Lawlor, state undersecretary for criminal justice policy, said the state will have to ask the FBI to restore its access to the databanks, and accreditation will be an important factor.

“We are optimistic that will happen soon,” Lawlor said.

The lab’s accreditation had expired last year. Ralph Keaton, executive director of the laboratory accreditation board in Garner, N.C., said the lab has taken corrective actions and has demonstrated it is following all the required procedures for accreditation.

The Justice Department findings cast a rare negative light on the respected lab, which had a national profile due partly to the work of Lee, Connecticut’s chief criminologist from 1978 to 2000. Lee played key roles in highly publicized cases including those of O.J. Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Chandra Levy and Elizabeth Smart.

Auditors said they found 40 problems at the lab including:

_Records on semen testing didn’t list what chemical solutions were used for extraction of semen samples.

_Records were not maintained to support conclusions in the analysis of the origin of human hairs and animal hairs.

_Two staff members did not complete competency tests before conducting digital evidence exams.

_An analyst who examined hair samples did not complete a proficiency test in that discipline.

_A fire debris analyst did not have fire debris casework experience.

_Unsealed evidence awaiting toxicology testing, including blood and urine, hadn’t been examined or analyzed for over a year.

The lab has also been weighted down with large testing backlogs, a result of a huge increase in the amount of evidence police are submitting for testing and no additional staffing over the past several years. The backlog was the worst in the nation in 2010, Malloy said in September while announcing increased staffing.

The number of DNA cases that haven’t been started at the lab jumped from less than 250 in mid-2006 to nearly 3,900 last year. The lab is also dealing with backlogs in other types of evidence testing, including nearly 1,700 firearms cases and 1,400 latent fingerprinting cases.

The backlogs follow a national trend. DNA casework backlogs at labs across the country increased from about 38,000 in 2005 to nearly 112,000 in 2009, according to the latest available Justice Department statistics.

Connecticut is planning to add 25 to 35 new lab workers over the next few years.

The backlogs prompted the lab to ask law enforcement agencies for the first time to limit the amount of evidence they submit for testing effective Jan. 1.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)