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Huge gains reported at crime lab's DNA unit

Machine speeds process, cuts backlog

Rebecca Webster, a DNA analyst at the State Police crime lab, decontaminated a DNA extraction station after a media tour. Rebecca Webster, a DNA analyst at the State Police crime lab, decontaminated a DNA extraction station after a media tour. (JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / May 23, 2008

MAYNARD - The M-48 sits on a countertop inside a clean room where masks and gloves are required wear. It is a large, rectangular machine that resembles a doughnut box with a see-through pane, and it is one of the Commonwealth's most important crime-fighting tools.

The M-48 delicately extracts DNA. "It's as if DNA were in an egg yolk," said Kristen Sullivan, supervisor of the DNA Unit at the Massachusetts State Police crime lab. "And this machine breaks open the yolk to release it."

The M-48 does in an hour what it would take dozens of technicians to do in weeks. Soon, another M-48 will be operational at the lab, along with other automated stations that will relieve humans of the tedious and time-consuming jobs of DNA extraction, separation, and amplification.

Roundly criticized in recent years for inefficiency and mishandling of DNA and other evidence, some of it crucial to apprehending or prosecuting dangerous felons, the crime lab has managed to dramatically slash its backlog and turnaround time, Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday, addressing about 600 people at the Seaport Hotel in South Boston attending the 14th annual Massachusetts Prosecutors Conference.

John Grossman, the undersecretary of forensic science and technology, said the turnaround is the result of better management, more automation, and increased funding that has allowed the lab to hire 10 chemists since last year. There are currently 23, and as many as 10 more could be added by next year, Grossman said. The lab has a budget of $17 million, and Patrick is asking for an additional $2.2 million for fiscal 2009.

The lab has recently analyzed DNA evidence that law enforcement officials said was important to several cases, including that of Alex F. Scesny, 38, who is being held without bail after pleading not guilty to a charge stemming from the alleged rape of a girlfriend in a West Boylston motel last year. The Berlin resident has been declared a person of interest in the slayings of six women in Worcester and Middlesex counties.

"We have made significant progress in a short time, and I thank all levels of law enforcement and our prosecutors for their partnership in that effort," Patrick said. "We know that the work that takes place at those labs is a force multiplier."

According to statistics provided by State Police, processing a DNA case required an average of 91 days in late 2006. By the beginning of this year, the average time was 60 days.

In the last three months of 2006, 112 cases were completed. That figure soared to 330 in the first three months of 2008.

At the crime lab's drug unit, similar results were noted, with the average number of backlogged cases plummeting from 1,889 to 556, and the average processing time dropping from 93 days to 31 days.

Last year, Vance, an international risk management consulting firm with an office in Braintree, released a 57-page report stating that evidence samples from nearly 1,000 homicides and other deaths and 6,500 sexual assaults across the state were never analyzed by the crime lab. The backlog of samples, found in a refrigerated room at the Maynard laboratory, dated to the 1980s.

The state hired Vance to review the lab's operations after problems surfaced with the handling of evidence in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the FBI-funded computer network that serves as a national registry for DNA samples collected from convicted criminals and arrested individuals. State crime labs compare crime scene DNA evidence to genetic profiles in the national database.

Last year, the civilian head of the crime lab resigned under pressure, and the administrator of the lab's DNA database was fired after he was suspended for allegedly mishandling CODIS test results, including 13 cases in which he did not tell law enforcement officials about positive DNA matches in unsolved sexual assault cases until after the statute of limitations had expired. Also last year, the state's top forensics official, who supervised the crime lab and the troubled state medical examiner's office, resigned.

Michael O'Keefe, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said the crime lab and the office of the chief medical examiner have been vastly improved.

"Any entity that has been neglected for many years isn't going to be repaired overnight," he added. "It may take a number of years to repair, but we are on the right path."

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