Officials Say D.C. Needs Local Crime Lab

Federal and local law enforcement officials and politicians want a forensic crime laboratory in the nation's capital. The district's DNA testing is currently conducted by an FBI lab in Virginia. Officials say because local cases are sapping federal resources, crime solving has slowed nationwide.

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Washington, D.C. is one of the few metropolitan areas that does not have its own forensics lab. The FBI conducts the district's DNA testing. FBI officials now say the D.C. cases are interfering with solving crimes nationwide.

NPR's Allison Keyes explains.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

White-coated technicians bend over slides and telescopes at the FBI's sprawling crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. The TKI Robot helps lab workers evaluate how much DNA is in the samples it manipulates. The FBI Lab's Deputy Assistant Director, Dr. Joseph DiZinno, says one-third of all DNA cases, and half of all evidence coming into this facility, comes from Washington D.C.

Mr. JOSEPH DIZINNO (Deputy Assistant Director, FBI Lab): Certainly, in the area of DNA, and I would say trace evidence, also, it has a great impact on the amount of casework received in this laboratory.

KEYES: The FBI Lab's main priority is terrorism. It takes evidence from law enforcement agencies worldwide. After terrorism, cases are then prioritized by trial date and the violence of the crime. But DiZinno says the sheer volume of cases from D.C. contributes to what he calls turnaround issues.

Some DNA cases have taken nearly nine months to process. DiZinno says there's no way to calculate how much faster the FBI could work without having to deal with cases from Washington D.C., but it would be able to get reports out sooner, and save some money.

Mr. DIZINNO: You can just look at the number of cases that are submitted, and the amount of evidence that's submitted, and realize that's certainly going to have an impact on delays for casework for other contributors.

KEYES: Washington, D.C. officials say a lab would increase the closure rate for homicides and sex assaults. Mayor Anthony Williams, earlier this month, urged the federal government to help the city defray the estimated $200 million dollar cost of a forensics lab.

Mayor ANTHONY WILLIAMS (Washington, D.C.): It would put us in a better position, we believe, to prioritize cases, to solve more crimes, and to bring more offenders to justice.

KEYES: Right now, Washington D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department says there's a backlog of approximately 4,000 unsolved homicide cases, dating back to about 1968, and at least 1,500 unsolved sex assault cases that are still within the statute of limitations. Some of those cases may have forensic evidence that could be tested.

The head of the Police Department's forensics science division, Commander Christopher Loggicono(ph), says police are already working to reduce the backlog and the burden on the FBI.

Commander CHRISTOPHER LOGGICONO (Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department): We have begun a DNA unit that's being trained by the FBI and working out of Quantico.

KEYES: The idea is, those ten people will work only on D.C. police cases at the FBI Lab, then be transferred to the District's forensic lab, if it is built.

The Police Department is reviewing homicide cold cases to see if any would benefit from DNA analysis, but Loggicono says forensic technology has only recently become such a powerful tool.

Commander LOGGICONO: It takes time to do this. So now, what you do is you go back and say, all right, what about these older cases, where we didn't look at solving it through this technology. Is there a benefit to going back and doing these cases?

KEYES: Washington, D.C. U.S. Attorney Ken Wainstein's office prosecutes for federal and local crime in the district. He says it helps when evidence is processed and entered into a national database as quickly as possible.

Mr. KEN WAINSTEIN (United States Attorney, Washington D.C.): That's the way that jurisdictions around the country have been very successful in identifying serial criminals who committed more than one crime, and left DNA in those scenes.

KEYES: Local and federal officials are trying to get funding to solve the evidence testing logjam. There is no money in President Bush's proposed 2007 budget for a D.C. crime lab.

The district's police department says there's no formal agreement for the FBI to deal with the district's evidence. The FBI, however, says it has no plans to stop.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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