The Connecticut State Crime Lab has changed since the famed forensic pathologist Henry Lee, MD ran the show. Lee, a world-renown pathologist, has solved some of this country’s most puzzling cases. In the case of Helle Crafts, the flight attendant whose ex-CIA husband killed her and ran her through a wood chipper, Dr. Lee and his lab were able to identify her remain strewn near a Connecticut pond via one lone molar. His findings led to the conviction of her husband.
Things have changed. Dr. Lee moved on. Thanks to his success, and to television shows such as CSI, the Law and Order franchise, Bluebloods, and NCIS; juries and the public in general have come to expect dazzling DNA results in cases which do not warrant it. The so-called “CSI-effect” as criminal justice theorists call it, is increasing the cost of prosecution, with juries having unrealistic expectations that DNA evidence should be provided in each case to establish guilt.
The CSI effect has also created lab backlogs across the country. The public has a difficult time separating fact from fiction. No morgue looks like the high-tech, futuristic CSI sets. Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) doesn’t have its own morgue. In fact, if you visit the Norfolk office, you will see a nondescript building one block away from the Auto Hobby Shop.
In 2006, the backlog at the Connecticut lab for DNA cases was less than 250. In 2011, that number had risen to almost 4,000 cases. During the same time frame, forensic staff at the facility located in Meriden was cut by ten percent. According to the Associated Press, the lab reports 1,700 backlogged firearms tests and 1,400 fingerprint cases. The Department of Justice reports a total of 112,000 backlogged cases in forensic labs nationwide, according to the last available figures.
The Connecticut lab has issued new testing guidelines for police effective January 1, 2012. The new policies restrict the number of samples taken in serious violent crimes. The new regulations also prevent DNA testing for many property crimes, including simple auto theft and theft of property worth under $2,000.
The troubled lab lost its national accreditation in August, 2011 due to Department of Justice concerns regarding supervision, control of evidence, and other troubling issues. Maybe Henry Lee can come back as a consultant and find some happy medium between DNA testing to solve car thefts and 4,000 backlogged serious violent crimes.
In days of diminishing resources, law enforcement and, in fact, the entire criminal justice system, must make intelligent decisions on how best to allocate scarce forensic dollars.
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