Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, April 12, 2002


Page 8


Proposed New Sheriff’s Criminalists May Have No Place to Work—Official


By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer


Even if the county Board of Supervisors asks the Sheriff’s Department to hire five new criminalists to address the rapidly increasing backlog of DNA analysis, there would be no place for them to work, a department spokesman said yesterday.

“If we do get these five people we have no desk space for them,” Harley Sagara, assistant director of the department’s Scientific Services Bureau, said. “They might be in the hallway.”

On Tuesday the board will consider a motion introduced by Supervisor Michael Antonovich that asks the department to hire the new criminalists to start working on getting rid of the backlog.

Criminalists are charged with examining evidence, such as blood or saliva, collected at a crime scene to find a genetic blueprint that is unique to each person. They then try to match the blueprint with a suspect.

The board cannot require Sheriff Lee Baca, an independent elected official, to hire the criminalists, but it can require him to report on his progress in eradicating the backlog.

Antonovich’s motion does require the department to come up with a timeline outlining specific dates and goals for eliminating the backlogged DNA homicide cases by the end of 2005. Under the motion, the department would also be required to give monthly updates on the number of backlogged cases analyzed and of the goals accomplished.

Sagara agreed there is a urgent need for the additional criminalists who would help clear up the more than 700 homicide cases that have yet to have DNA testing completed, but questioned where the additional personnel will be placed give the already cramped quarters of the SSB.  

 “How are we going to shoehorn these people in?” Sagara asked. “They might have to share desks.”

The department receives between 60 and 80 DNA cases involving violent assaults and homicides a month, but insufficient staffing is forcing the department to lose ground every day, Sagara said.

Of the department’s monthly intake the 10 criminalists assigned to perform DNA analysis can complete only 20 DNA cases a month, forcing the department to shelve anywhere between 40 and 60 cases a month until it can get around to it, he said.

“The rest go in the freezer,” Sagara said. “It’s just a matter of manpower.”

A spokesman for Antonovich said the supervisor is unwilling to wait until the county’s regional crime lab is expected to open its doors in 2005 to begin hiring new criminalists to address the DNA problem. The new crime lab, which will be shared by the Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD, will have space allocated for 70 Sheriff’s criminalists.

“We have to alleviate the backlog,” spokesman Tony Bell said.

But that may be easier said than done, Sagara noted, because even an experienced criminalist will take nearly six months to become adjusted to the way the department’s procedures. A new criminalist with no experience would take at least two years to be fully integrated into the system, Sagara said. There are currently 10 criminalists are currently in training, Sagara said.

Antonovich’s motion suggests the department fund the new positions with a variety of department funds and grants. Included in the list of potential funding sources is the Sheriff’s Narcotic Forfeiture Funding, which is made up of the seized assets of drug dealers.

Antonovich suggests the department find $2.5 million in funding for the five new positions. A Sheriff’s Department criminalist makes in the range of $2,611 to $6,463 a month.

The board is also scheduled on Tuesday to consider a request from Baca to hire retired county homicide investigators to address the department’s backlog of 3,000 unsolved homicide cases that reach back 20 years.

A spokesman for the Public Defender’s Office said a stepping-up of efforts by the Sheriff’s Department to resolve both the backlog in DNA cases and unresolved homicides could require the office to bring in additional resources.

“Assuming that results in addition cases filed by the department, that certainly will impact our workload,” Robert Kalunian said.

Supervisor Don Knabe is also bringing a motion before the board demanding an investigation by the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office why DNA evidence was destroyed.

 “It is imperative that not one sample of DNA evidence be destroyed if there is even the slightest possibility that it could be used to solve an unsolved crime,” Knabe said in a statement.

Last week Deputy District Attorney Lisa Kahn, head of the office’s Forensic Science Section, said she believes the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department lost or destroyed biological evidence in thousands of sexual-assault cases. Knabe’s motion estimates that number as high as 6,000.

Before Jan. 1 there was no requirement that law enforcement agencies hold on to DNA evidence, John Musella, spokesman for Knabe, said.

“We want to know if any of that evidence could have helped to convict someone or help someone prove their innocence,” Musella said of the missing evidence.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company