Schimel hires lab consultant as criticism over delays mounts
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has quietly hired a consultant to identify ways to speed up evidence testing at Wisconsin’s crime labs, as criticism mounts over delays.
Florida International University’s National Forensic Science Technology Center signed a $42,870 contract with the state Department of Justice in June to review operations at all three state crime labs with a goal of identifying inefficiencies and long-term staffing needs.
The center is expected to produce a report in September. DOJ offiicals plan to use it as they craft their requests for the 2019-2021 state budget.
Testing delays have dogged the labs for years as police submit more evidence in hopes of developing suspect DNA profiles and other leads. A DOJ report The Associated Press obtained through an open records request shows turnaround times for the testing of DNA, guns, tool marks and drug compositions have grown dramatically since Schimel took office in January 2015.
Schimel’s opponent in November, Democrat Josh Kaul, has accused the attorney general of mismanaging the labs and leaving criminals on the street. Kaul campaign spokeswoman Gillian Drummond pointed to the case of Frank Schiller, who killed a man in a drunken interstate crash in 2017 while the crime lab was analyzing his blood in connection with a previous drunken driving arrest.
“I’m glad to see that, in an election year, Brad Schimel has finally found the motivation to take action, but we need an Attorney General who is consistently committed to ensuring that justice isn’t delayed for victims,” Kaul said.
DOJ officials maintain that a string of court decisions allowed Schiller to remain free on bail before the fatal crash. Crime lab leaders insist that they’ve seen a deluge of submissions in sexual assault and drug cases and they’ve been grappling with analyst turnover. The FBI also imposed tougher standards on DNA testing last year, which they say further slowed testing.
According to the DOJ’s most recent annual crime lab report, from 2015 through 2017:
—The average turnaround time for DNA testing jumped from 43 days to 76 days. DNA submissions increased about 29 percent.
—The average turnaround time for gun testing increased from 113 days to 171 days even though submissions dropped by 20, from 728 in 2015 to 708 in 2017.
—Turnaround time for tool mark analysis grew from 277 days to 511 days, even though tool mark submissions decreased from 34 in 2015 to 18 in 2017.
—Turnaround time for drug testing nearly doubled, from 42 days to 80 days. Submissions increased by about 12 percent over the three years.
Crime Lab Bureau Director Nicole Roehm said the number of DNA analysts has hovered around 65 all three years. The delays in that unit have resulted from a 45 percent increase in submissions in sexual assault cases between 2016 and 2017, she said.
Police are submitting more DNA evidence in sexual assault cases because they’re realizing the need to determine whether known offenders are linked to other assaults, Roehm said. Sexual assaults are the most complex cases that analysts face because they often must parse DNA from two different people and examine large items like comforters or blankets, which slows down analysis, she said.
What’s more, the FBI in January expanded the number of genetic markers that analysts must identify to develop a DNA profile from 13 to 20, which further slowed testing, she said.
Two of the labs’ four firearms/tool mark analysts resigned in 2015, Roehm said. The DOJ has since hired three additional analysts, although one of them is still in training. As for the drug unit, one analyst retired, one transferred and one was promoted. The unit also encountered more drug mixtures, which take longer to analyze, she said.
Roehm stressed that the labs prioritize high-profile cases. She also pointed out that Schimel last August created five additional lab positions to catalog crime scenes and write reports as well as six more positions to help DNA analysts determine whether DNA exists on evidence submissions.
Kaul also has criticized Schimel for moving too slowly to get thousands of unanalyzed sexual assault kits sitting on police and hospital shelves analyzed. The kits have gone untested for various reasons. For example, prosecutors may have decided not to pursue charges or victims may have decided not to cooperate with the investigation. Schimel has outsourced those kits to private labs.
“Brad has reallocated and added resources to the crime lab during his term, added ... positions at the lab and even initiated the review that is currently being undertaken,” Schimel campaign manager Matthew Dobler said. “Kaul lacks facts, has no real plans for the job and no idea how to manage or lead the Department of Justice.”
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