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N.M. crime lab suspends DNA testing

By Jeff Proctor
Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — DNA testing has been shut down at the State Police crime lab in Santa Fe for more than a month, leaving a backlog of 124 cases, officials confirmed Thursday.

The testing ceased after the New Mexico Forensic Laboratories’ accreditation lapsed at the end of October, state Department of Public Safety spokesman Peter Olson said.

Olson said 48 cases have come in since testing stopped. Those are included in the backlog of cases, two of which will have gone past their court deadlines by the time officials hope to regain accreditation on Dec. 10.

Lemuel Martinez, 13th Judicial district attorney in Los Lunas, said he just learned of the shutdown from a Journal reporter on Thursday.

“This could be a blow to every district attorney’s office across New Mexico, as well as law enforcement,” he said. “To not have that service readily available will really be terrible for the entire criminal justice system. I just hope no cases fall through the cracks.”

Bennett Baur, the Santa Fe district public defender and president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, called the halt in testing “concerning.”

“Not only is prompt DNA testing important for prosecutors, it’s also important to clear defendants and suspects of crimes,” Baur said. “Certain cases come to a screeching halt until DNA results come in. If we’re looking at delays of months, or even weeks, there could be innocent people sitting in jail during that time.”

The lab handles DNA evidence for every jurisdiction in New Mexico other than Bernalillo County - about 50 percent of the state’s caseload, which comes from more than 200 law enforcement agencies.

Olson said the lapse in accreditation happened near the end of a yearlong process during which state officials were aiming for a more stringent, internationally accepted accreditation.

The accrediting body had required state officials to meet several “technical standards,” he said. He did not elaborate on what the standards were, but said the lab didn’t meet the auditor’s deadline of Oct. 29, and the accreditation lapsed.

So, state officials decided to stop testing, Olson said, because the FBI requires labs to be accredited in order to enter DNA results into the bureau’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, database.

“We made the voluntary decision to cease testing because we want to be able to enter our results into CODIS,” he said, adding that he wasn’t aware of any state laws that require a lab to be accredited for DNA to be admissible in court.

Pat Davis, spokesman for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, said his office typically doesn’t accept DNA evidence from unaccredited labs.

The accrediting board meets on Dec. 10, Olson said, and state officials are “extremely confident” the lab will regain its accreditation after that meeting. DNA testing will resume at that point, he said.

And once testing resumes, Olson said the backlog could be cleared in as little as two months.

“So no cases should be affected,” he said. “In the two that will have passed their deadlines, the prosecutors have agreed to ask for continuances.”

Martinez said he wasn’t aware of any cases in his jurisdiction that had been affected by the shutdown. If the state lab is unable to process evidence, he said, his prosecutors will likely contract with private labs in California and elsewhere.

“But that is tremendously expensive, and it will be a hit to our budget,” Martinez said. “You have to pay to fly the experts in, put them up in a hotel and pay them $300 or $400 an hour to testify.”

Copyright 2009 Albuquerque Journal