More crimes being solved: DNA backlog in IL Forensic Lab on decrease


Senator Van Pelt during the March 2019 hearing

“We’re faced with the fact that we know that there’s a lot of DNA evidence that’s not being analyzed and as a result, we walk among murderers,” said State Senator Patricia Van Pelt, 5th District, at a Senate Public Health Law Committee hearing she chaired on Tues., Jan. 28, in Springfield.

But State Police Director Brendan Kelly delivered the good news. He said that there has been progress in reducing the backlog of DNA kits which skyrocketed to over 13,000 in 2018. "The goal is to have DNA results six months after coming into the lab."

He credited new technology and additional hires in the Illinois State Police Division of Forensic Services (DFS) as reasons for this turn around.


Last year's hearing in Chicago drew a crowd

At hearings of this committee in March 2019, crime victim's families told their stories about what the lack of evidence to solve their loved one's cases have done to them and their children and family. They are tortured by not knowing, they said. One family's lose happened in 2014.

"The DNA backlog is considerable and cases could take as long as one to two years before we get results back," confirmed the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) Chief Communications Officer, Anthony Guglielmi.

"The length of time required for DNA testing was one of the critiques brought up in a recent Department of Justice report concerning the Chicago Police Department's ability to solve cases. Given that, we are constantly working with the Illinois State Police to prioritize cases as best as physically possible."


Many people testified last March about their family members who were victims of unsolved cases waiting for DNA results

Of the 14,122 statewide biology DNA samples handled in 2019, 4,972 were from the CPD.

Robin J. Woolery, Assistant Deputy Director, Division of Forensic Services, explained that when 2020 began, there were less than 8,000 samples to be tested and only 14 were over a year old. "Of the 14, the oldest case was 165 days old." 

"The use of high through-put TECAN robotics is being expanded, with the first sample batches processed in November of last year and training in the Chicago, Joliet and Springfield labs conducted in December," explained Kelly. "We are very excited about the impact we will see as a result of robotics this year.

"Also, the necessary commitment of infrastructure capital and human capital has finally been made. The ISP is grateful for the Governor’s support and for the bipartisan support by the Senate of the 2020 budget, which included additional headcount for forensic scientists and for the capital bill which included $120 million for the ISP.

"Twenty-two new forensic scientists hired last year are completing training and 24 additional forensic scientists are beginning training this year.

"That moves us closer to optimal staffing but is just the first year in a many year process to rebuild the ranks of our forensic scientists which were devastated by budget crisis after budget crisis and which face an imminent retirement bubble as a result of absorbing the Chicago city lab system.

"The training time for forensic scientists before starting actual work in biology has traditionally been 24 months but we are piloting a fast track program this year that will be more on-the-job training, allowing them to work assignments on the backlog within only a year. The budget has also allowed us to make improvements to crime scene investigations – the critical gateway to the forensics process.

"Finally, building a new lab in the Will County area is the top capital project we are working on with the Capital Development Board and moving forward with feasibility studies for potential sites," concluded Kelly.

It should be noted that in the investigation of a crime, it takes more than a lab to solve a case. As Kelly pointed out, it involves the courts, evolving training, techniques and standards of evidence.

"That’s why Governor Prizker has created a forensic sciences task force – 15 distinguished members just named – which will develop and make evidence based recommendations to this body, the courts and all criminal justice stakeholders to make sure we don’t see this kind of problem happen again. Increased communications with investigators and prosecutors are already reducing waste of our lab resources," said Kelly.

Van Pelt concluded the meeting saying, "Although there is still work to be done, I am encouraged to see that ISP has made some progress in the last several months regarding the backlogs. 

How does the Forensic Biologic Lab work? - Updated
"When many people hear words like "quick" and "fast" connected to new DNA tests, they think that there should be no delays in processing," explained Woolery. "They think that the lack of speed in the process must mean that the lab is negligent.

"Reality is that getting lab evidence work done and done correctly is complicated and 'quick' and 'fast' are relative terms."

Starting with basics, "evidence" means much more than "DNA." Evidence can be bullet casings, clothing, a gun, DNA and many other items. The biology lab does DNA testing only. That requires blood, body fluids and/or skin samples.

Rapid DNA* is a term used to describe the fully automated process of developing a DNA profile from a buccal (cheek) swab without human interaction. 
"The goal of Rapid DNA is to link FBI approved commercial instruments capable of producing a core loci DNA profile within two hours to the existing COmbined DNA Index System (CODIS) in order to search unsolved crimes of special concern while a qualifying arrestee is in police custody during the booking process," explains Woolery. 

CODIS is the FBI’s (Federal Bureau of Investigation) program of support for criminal justice DNA database as well as the software used to run these databases which contain the DNA profiles contributed by federal state, and local participating forensic labs. 

Crime scene sample CANNOT, at this time, be run on the Rapid instrument and uploaded in CODIS.   

While new equipment can make some process testing faster "quicker" and more accurate, many samples still require tedious hours of manual analysis. 

*ISP has purchased an ANDE Rapid DNA instrument. Validation and training are complete and the lab’s pilot will begin Feb. 24.

Illinois Senate 5th District Map



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