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Warner Proposes Crime Lab Upgrades

Hiring Would Cut DNA Test Backlog

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page B01

RICHMOND, Dec. 14 -- Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) proposed Tuesday that the state spend almost $3 million to hire more DNA scientists and enhance the Virginia crime lab's ability to rapidly evaluate evidence from crime scenes.

The governor said the budget proposals he will make Friday will include hiring 20 scientists, three of whom would start the state's first facility capable of testing mitochondrial DNA. That more complicated form of testing is required when investigators have only samples of hair, fingernails, tooth enamel or bones.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), left, jokes with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) before the meeting of the state's electoral college in Richmond. (Steve Helber -- AP)

The governor's amendments to the state's two-year budget also will include a proposal to expand a regional lab in Norfolk and help the lab's scientists work through a backlog of 13,000 drug cases.

"Our forensic lab has an outstanding track record in supporting criminal investigations," Warner said in a statement. "Additional manpower, tools and physical space will translate into significant improvements to the services our lab provides."

Warner's proposals mirror those being made in states across the nation. As DNA and other high-tech evidence become a routine part of the criminal justice system, labs are buckling under the strain, according to forensic scientists.

Chris Asplen, former director of a national commission on the future of DNA evidence, said Virginia has been better than most states, where the time between collection of evidence at a crime scene and processing by a lab "is excessively long," he said.

"The more DNA testing you do, the more efficient your law enforcement and crime solving becomes," Asplen said. "But the biggest problem we have in the United States is turnaround time on actual cases."

Legislative leaders in Virginia praised the governor's proposal but said they expect to go even further when they convene in Richmond next month for the 2005 General Assembly session.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a former narcotics officer and longtime member of the legislature's crime commission, said he believes the commission will recommend greater autonomy, a new board of scientific advisers and greater funding to relieve the backlog of cases at the lab.

"I think the governor's suggestions are part of the remedy. I don't know that it's the entire remedy," Stolle said.

Lawmakers said they have become alarmed by reports that police departments often wait months for results from the state lab. And samples that are sent to the FBI for processing take even longer, they said. As a result, some trials are delayed for years.

"They are overwhelmed," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "If you are a criminal defense attorney or a prosecutor, it takes forever."

Warner also said Tuesday that he will propose the creation of a law enforcement unit to centralize the collection of information about terrorism and other state emergencies. His budget proposals will include about $775,000 to hire 12 people.

Dubbed the Virginia Fusion Center, the new team would coordinate intelligence and other information among local governments, police departments, the state police, state health officials and others.

Brian Jenkins, a senior terrorism adviser to the president of the Rand Corp., said Virginia's efforts to improve information sharing are necessary.

"What's emerging are a number of these efforts to ensure that all of the information that is collected from all of the sources is brought together and appropriately shared," Jenkins said. "In order to connect the dots, you have to connect the cops."

The governor's proposals for the lab and the terrorism unit drew support from both of the major contenders for governor.

Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the likely Democratic nominee in 2005, said his candidate "obviously supports every one of these goals and hopes the General Assembly looks favorably upon these requests."

Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the likely Republican nominee, said, "Anything we can do to help the DNA lab, we are going to be supportive of."

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