DNA backlog rises at FBI laboratory

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As any armchair detective knows, a DNA sample is often the key evidence that convicts a murderer by the end of a 60-minute TV crime show. But in real life, it would take two years to clear the growing backlog of 3,211 forensic DNA cases at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's laboratory.

The FBI lab is struggling to keep up with demand for DNA analysis from law enforcement agencies around the country, according to a review of the DNA backlog by the Justice Department’s inspector general. It found the FBI usually scheduled lab analyses based on court trial dates, the FBI director’s priorities, and media attention on a case. That prioritization has pushed missing persons cases to the bottom of the list and they now account for nearly 40 percent of the forensic DNA case backlog, the inspector general said. At the lab’s current rate of work, it would need nearly 2 years to clear the entire backlog of 3,211 cases, even without the addition of any new ones.

And forget about all the glitzy electronic lab tools featured on TV crime shows. The FBI is still trying to get a modern computer system in place to track all evidence samples and lab work, according to the inspector general. After spending more than $10 million and six years to upgrade its lab information system, the FBI is still unable to generate an electronic chain-of-custody document for safekeeping of DNA evidence and must use paper to record each time agency experts handle and analyze the samples.

In its written response to the inspector general, the FBI said the lack of enough funding and scientists have contributed to the backlog. Since 2004, the FBI said it received only half of the extra $120 million it requested for DNA analysis, and just 2 percent of the $260 million it sought for handling DNA samples from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Quick Fact: Less than 50 percent of an FBI DNA examiner’s time is spent analyzing DNA evidence, the inspector general said. The rest of the time is spent making phone calls to police agencies to obtain case information and provide status updates; testifying in court, training others; and performing supervisory and managerial tasks.

Other new reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and departmental and agency Office of Inspectors General (OIG):

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  • South Mississippi Electric Power Assn. did not properly account for hurricane aid (OIG)

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