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Crime & Courts

Audit finds new $90 million Alaska crime lab hasn't met expectations

The new $90 million crime lab the state built in 2012 has fallen far short of promises that it would lead to faster, more effective processing of forensic evidence uncovered in criminal cases in Alaska, a newly released legislative audit of the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory has found.

The "state of the art" crime lab is doing less with more, said the report, based on an investigation by the Division of Legislative Audit conducted in 2016.

"There are fewer services provided after construction of the crime lab than were available prior to construction," said the report, released Friday. Wait times for evidence test results are not much shorter than they used to be, auditors found.  

Untested evidence is still piled up: When auditors visited the crime lab in July 2016, they found that some 74 percent of sexual assault evidence kits had been awaiting testing for more than 30 days. There were long delays in analyzing DNA evidence.

The audit also found problems with security at the facility — important given the weight placed on the integrity of forensic evidence in criminal investigations and challenges made by criminal defense attorneys.

Today, about 20 percent of the 84,000-square-foot building sits empty, the report said. Instead of being used for technology, it is being used to store the Department of Public Safety's records and supplies. The space also houses the commissioner's offices.

The findings about the crime lab and the mismanagement they suggest are "scandalous," said Sen. Berta Gardner, the Anchorage Democrat who ordered the audit.

She said that she and other legislators who supported spending on the project did so because they "believed work that was being done out of state would be done here, that it would be faster and better completion and more cost effective."

"And I think the report is really damning that it hasn't happened."

For their part, the Department of Public Safety said it "disagreed with many of the findings," according to deputy commissioner Bill Comer.  

But it has agreed to implement the recommendations of auditors, including changes to evidence control, security and reporting procedures.

'They seemed uninterested'

The audit was ordered by legislators alarmed by a lack of answers about untested sexual assault evidence kits in Alaska.

In 2015, Gardner said she asked crime lab management how many untested rape kits existed in the state. The answer was "we don't know," Gardner said.

"The crime lab just seemed uninterested," she said.

Gardner and Rep. Geran Tarr — both Anchorage Democrats — filed bills asking for an audit of rape kits.

"We didn't know we were kind of opening a hornet's nest," she said. "They discovered all kinds of other issues as they went along."

Auditors found instances where baggies of cocaine were left unattended and where the crime lab manager allowed his daughter, a juvenile and not an employee, to help with an inventory of drugs. She was given a key card to the building and a lab, the report said.

The report notes inadequate video surveillance in evidence rooms, administrative assistants who were granted high-level computer system clearances and other questionable security practices.

Some of the numbers the crime lab reported about its own productivity did not match reality, auditors found.

Promises unfulfilled

The auditors also found that promises about what a new facility would offer didn't come to fruition.

When it was being designed, some of the building was left unfinished to eventually house emerging new forensic technologies.

In 2010, public safety officials said a new lab would allow work like toxicology screenings to be performed on-site instead of being outsourced to labs in other states, according to the report.

But that hasn't happened.  

Toxicology testing for substances other than alcohol in the blood is done at Washington state's toxicology lab. A federal grant pays for expert witnesses from Washington to come to Alaska to testify about toxicology results for cases that are traffic-related, like fatal collisions.  

But it doesn't cover other types of cases, like murder.

"For example in a shooting if we wanted to know if there was meth or heroin onboard, it is a little more challenging. We'd have to determine if we want to test it at a private lab, and then bring up that expert to testify," said Clint Campion, the Anchorage district attorney.

The result: Prosecutors often don't know with certainty what drugs a suspect was taking at the time of the crime.

If drug toxicology could be done locally, "it certainly would be used more often than it is now," Campion said.

"I'd like to know every time," he said. "I think it is relevant for our decision-making process."

Beyond drug toxicology, the lab doesn't do urine analysis, trace evidence, visual or microscopic analysis of questioned documents, analysis of fire debris or tire tread examinations, the report said. There isn't steady demand for most of those, Campion said.

Making sure sexual assault kits gathered as evidence are tested is a priority of the state, Campion said. He said in his experience evidence in such cases deemed urgent has been handled relatively quickly.

"It can be critical to have a SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) kit back in a timely manner when you have a stranger-on-stranger case," he said. "But more often than not, sexual assaults occur between people who know each other."

In those cases, the question is not the identity of the assailant was or whether sex took place, but whether it was consensual. The forensic evidence collected in a rape kit isn't as crucial to such prosecutions, he said.

Long waits for evidence processing extended beyond rape kits, the report found.

The auditors also found "backlogs" for "most services" between 2007 and 2016.

"The backlogs in DNA analysis for major crimes and (fingerprint) analysis are the most notable," the report said.

Department of Public Safety response 

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the crime lab, disagreed with many of the findings of the audit in a letter included with the report.

Some of the backlogs are because of staffing vacancies, wrote Commissioner Walt Monegan in a response. The crime lab has reduced positions because of budget cuts.

Lab manager Orin Dym referred questions to Bill Comer, deputy commissioner of the agency.

Comer said that the backlog of sexual assault kits to be analyzed "has been reduced from years to months." Only about 5 percent of the requests the lab gets are older than 30 days, compared to what he said was a national average of 15 percent.

"We consider this good performance. All this has been achieved while simultaneously decreasing in size as the state budget shrinks," he wrote.

On security and integrity of evidence questions, he wrote that the lab maintains national accreditation meeting the "high standards required by the criminal justice system."

Gardner said that the audit report is still being read in Juneau. She plans to meet with Monegan next week.

Some fierce early critics of the project like Chris Beheim say the conclusions of the audit are predictable.

Beheim is the former manager of the crime lab. He retired in 2007.

A new $75 million crime lab was part of a package of criminal justice bills submitted by Gov. Sean Parnell at the start of the 2010 legislative session. In a news conference as the Legislature convened, then-Attorney General Dan Sullivan — now a U.S. senator — backed the measures as an offensive against sex crimes. "This is a comprehensive plan designed to address all components of this horrible scourge," Sullivan told reporters.

That year, Beheim and a small group of other forensic scientists mounted vocal opposition to the plans to construct the palatial new building. They said boosters of the project overstated the demand for work, leading to an oversized design. They wrote to legislators, sent letters to the editor and even authored a report with the Alaska Policy Forum looking critically at the project.

None of it found traction. And no one has ever been held accountable for the gap between the promises and reality, he said.

"No one was looking out for the state's interests," said Beheim. "And that is what's outrageous to me."

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