News

DNA D.O.A.

FIVE YEARS AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA, THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS STILL HAS NO DNA LAB, THOUGH IT HAS STATE AND FEDERAL FUNDS TO BUILD ONE — AND HAS BEEN LEASING SPACE FOR A LAB SINCE 2007

by

comment

"RAPE KITS" COLLECTED FROM CRIME VICTIMS ARE ROUTINELY SENT OUT OF STATE FOR ANALYSIS, WHERE THE RESULTS CAN TAKE SIX MONTHS TO BE RETURNED.

AND THERE'S NO END IN SIGHT.

cover_story-2.jpg

Before Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, the New Orleans Police Department's DNA laboratory inside the crime lab at Tulane Avenue and South Gayoso Street was the most successful in the state. Technical leader Anne Montgomery opened the DNA lab for the city in 2001, had it accredited, and began screening DNA against the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database in 2003.

  "We had three analysts in there, and we served as a training ground for other laboratories," Montgomery says. "Once we trained analysts, they would be hired away fairly rapidly by other laboratories across the state."

  Using federal grant money, the DNA laboratory in New Orleans was successful in obtaining DNA profiles from hundreds of sexual assault cases in the city, dating back as far as 1987, resulting in convictions in cases that had long gone cold.

  Now, the lab itself has gone cold.

  Orleans Parish has been functioning without a working DNA laboratory ever since the crime lab building took 4 1/2 feet of water during Katrina. The Tulane and Gayoso location is now a vacant lot, and the NOPD sends samples to Baton Rouge for analysis by the Louisiana State Police, where they're then outsourced again to a private company at taxpayers' expense.

  The inability to rebuild a DNA lab isn't for lack of money — funds have been provided by both the state and the federal government but have languished due to red tape and bureaucratic torpor. In June, Anna Duggar, director of the NOPD crime lab, resigned to take a teaching position at Loyola University.

  "What's been most frustrating over the last three years is that there are a multitude of stakeholders involved — the state, the city, FEMA, the NOPD — and they've seemed consistently unable to get on the same page and move forward with productive decisions," Duggar says.

  District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agrees. "It's obviously hampered us and reduced our ability to be more effective in prosecuting cases," he says. Cannizzaro adds he is optimistic about the new mayoral administration of Mitch Landrieu, but even now he doesn't see a new DNA laboratory on the horizon for New Orleans.

  Five years of bureaucratic and political delay means investigations and prosecutions of rape and murder cases have been delayed, leaving some of New Orleans' most dangerous criminals — including possible serial rapists — out on the streets. Meanwhile, Landrieu and Police Chief Ronal Serpas are facing both the highest per capita murder rate in the country and a $67 million hole in the city's budget — and they still cannot set a date for when Orleans Parish might have a DNA laboratory up and running.

"It's obviously hampered us and reduced our ability to be more effective in prosecuting cases," says District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
  • "It's obviously hampered us and reduced our ability to be more effective in prosecuting cases," says District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

  "They're having to pick and choose which cases to do DNA on," says Cate Bartholomew, a former assistant district attorney in the sex crimes unit. "And there's an extensive delay in getting DNA back of at least six months."

Fortunately for law enforcement and prosecutors, the lab had entered the existing DNA samples into the CODIS database before Hurricane Katrina struck.

  "If we hadn't have done that, then that evidence would have been lost forever during the flooding after Hurricane Katrina," Montgomery says. "It's those profiles that contributed to the New Orleans DNA lab generating more cold CODIS hits than any other DNA lab in the state in 2005."

  A "cold CODIS hit" is when the DNA evidence from a case with an unknown perpetrator matches up to DNA swabbed from arrestees or other previously convicted individuals whose DNA is entered into CODIS, a national database of DNA profiles connected with criminal cases. A cold CODIS hit puts a name and a face to the perpetrator in a rape case, so the DA's office and law enforcement can then carry out an investigation.

  "Some of the CODIS hits were single hits, but some were clearly serial rapists, because you would have six, eight, 11 hits to one guy," says Bartholomew, , who prosecuted the first cold CODIS case in Orleans Parish in 2007.

  DNA in that 1996 case had been uploaded to CODIS, and the defendant, Rudolph Wade, had been arrested in Maryland for holding a knife over a woman and demanding her car. With a DNA match to Wade, the NOPD persuaded the victim in the case to come forward and testify. Wade was found guilty of forcible rape — his second felony conviction involving violence against a woman — and Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo sentenced Wade to 80 years in prison.

The crime laboratory building, which housed the old DNA laboratory, was demolished in 2009, after sitting vacant for four years. The lot on the corner of Tulane and South Gayoso is now overgrown with grass. An orphaned parking lot still has a sign that gives the only hint of the property's former use. It still reads: "NOPD. PARKING RESERVED FOR CRIME LAB PERSONNEL AND AUTHORIZED VISITORS ONLY."

  Much of the evidence housed in the old laboratory was destroyed in the aftermath of the storm. In the meantime, of the roughly 500 cold CODIS hits gathered by the Orleans Parish DNA lab before the storm, the NOPD's Sex Crimes Unit can't even be sure how many of those cases have been investigated since then.

  Lt. Paul Noel, who recently took over as commander of the NOPD's Sex Crimes Unit, estimates that at most, 350 of the 500 cold CODIS hits have been investigated since 2005 — potentially leaving 150 known rapists out on the streets.

  "The problem we had before was that we had numerous lists floating around," Noel said at a recent meeting of COMSTAT, the weekly meeting where NOPD commanders discuss crime statistics. "We need to reconcile all these lists so we can get one list that's true and correct."

NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas declined comment on this story.
  • NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas declined comment on this story.

The NOPD has been leasing the lab from the University of New Orleans (UNO) since 2007, but has been working without DNA equipment in the space ever since. In the space reserved for a DNA laboratory, two technicians now screen sexual assault kits — otherwise known as rape kits — for viable semen samples, which they then send on to the Louisiana State Police laboratory in Baton Rouge for DNA analysis.

  "But the state police do not have the capacity to handle the workload of a major metropolitan department," Lt. Noel said. "Our kits make up 80 percent of their intake, and they have been outsourcing those, and it's killing them."

  "I wouldn't say that it's killing us," says Capt. Layne Barnum, who runs the Baton Rouge crime lab for the Louisiana State Police. "There is an additional demand. Every additional case is an additional case that we weren't ready for, I could say that."

  Barnum says the State Police lab took on 150 cases from the NOPD between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, at an average cost of $2,000 to $3,000 each. He disputes Noel's estimate of an 80 percent increase in work, saying the 150 cases represent a roughly 10 percent increase in the laboratory's existing backlog — but the Baton Rouge lab also has been working to reduce a backlog of 2,000 of its own cases since January 2009. Right now, just 500 cases are sitting in line in Baton Rouge waiting to be processed, Barnum estimates.

  Still, Barnum's lab outsources the majority of the NOPD's DNA to private laboratories using federal grants from the National Institute of Justice.

  "We end up outsourcing the bulk of the cases from the NOPD," he says. "And I know we've been doing that for several years."

A working DNA laboratory is essential to fight crime in a major American city, says Emily Maw, executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, an organization that has worked with the city to properly catalog evidence and DNA samples since the old crime laboratory was destroyed. The Innocence Project has exonerated 255 wrongfully convicted people across the country based on DNA evidence, 10 of whom were in Louisiana, says Maw.

This sign is all that remains on an empty lot on Tulane Avenue where the DNA lab used to be.
  • This sign is all that remains on an empty lot on Tulane Avenue where the DNA lab used to be.

  "For serious cases, rapes and homicides, and crimes of violence, we're increasingly able to identify perpetrators from minute amounts of DNA," Maw says. "And in a city that has a justified fear of random violent crime it does seem to be a very high priority that we would develop the best and most state-of-the-art facilities and technology to solve those crimes, or to utilize the resources and testing abilities that other labs have.

  "And if in the past we have not done that, it is really only the safety of the people in New Orleans that has suffered," she continues. "It's also very important to have an organized system of evidence so that we can go back and look at old cases, as the technology develops."

  Since Katrina, Maw's organization has focused on maintaining an organized list of evidence associated with cases that have been tried in Orleans Parish. She would also like to see a fully functioning DNA laboratory in the city.

  The impact of a hamstrung DNA system is threefold. First, for people like Maw, there's a possibility that innocent people remain incarcerated because DNA evidence that might exonerate them remains uninvestigated. Or in the case of one of Maw's clients, Willie Cross, who was imprisoned for rape in Jefferson Parish in 1979, for example, DNA evidence that might have exonerated Smith has since been destroyed. Second, from the prosecution's perspective, and from the perspective of victims, it means cases against sex and violent criminals aren't being made. Third, it means investigations aren't as thorough as they might be.

The city has rented space in the UNO building since 2007, but has not installed DNA analysis equipment.
  • The city has rented space in the UNO building since 2007, but has not installed DNA analysis equipment.

New Orleans' lack of a DNA laboratory is not because there aren't for lack of money or resources. The city could easily have paid for the DNA equipment with $200,000 the state allocated in 2008, or with a $1.4 million federal grant secured in November 2009. Yet as far as Gambit has been able to ascertain, both sources of funds remain untouched.

  The state allocated $200,000 to the NOPD for crime lab equipment in 2008. That money expired on June 31 and was about to go back to the state, unspent, until Capt. Barnum from the State Police lab petitioned for an extension of the deadline until December 2010.

  "I've done everything I can to keep that money alive," he says.

  Furthermore, Maw's organization worked with the NOPD to secure a $1.4 million federal grant last November to catalog inventory materials from the city's evidence facilities, as well as carry out DNA testing on evidence from closed homicide and rape cases in which defendants had been convicted. That money for DNA testing, too, remains unspent, even though it could pay for the necessary equipment to establish a new laboratory, several times over.

  Meanwhile, the city has also been spending money leasing space for a DNA lab inside the crime lab at UNO — without filling it with the laboratory equipment required. The city signed a 36-month contract with UNO in February 2007, for a total cost of $713,000. The DNA lab takes up 1,200 of the 18,000 total square feet, meaning the city spent roughly $50,000 on the un-equipped DNA lab over three years. That money was reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the city has continued to pay rent on the UNO space since February 2010.

  Duggar continues to act as an unpaid consultant to the laboratory.

  "I'm optimistic that we're seeing a new focus on multidisciplinary and multi-jurisdictional cooperation," Duggar says. "That should benefit the Crime Lab and its DNA section, but it will take a serious, sustained refocusing on effective problem solving to address the longstanding shortcomings."

  Records obtained by Gambit show that the city finally sought bids on new DNA equipment for the crime lab in April 2010. Just one company bid on the contract: California-based Applied Biosystems, listing a total price of $189,579.06 to supply one ABI 3130 Genetic Analyzer, one HID 750 Real-Time DNA computer, and one Silver 96-Well GeneAmp amplifier system.

  On July 12, the Landrieu Administration rejected the Applied Biosystems bid, deeming it "nonresponsive." The reason? Applied Biosystems had included a line item for estimated shipping and handling of the machinery, totaling $2,753.

  "The invitation to bid will be reissued shortly," wrote Nat Celestine, assistant purchasing administrator for the city.

  As of last week — nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina — the city has rented space and secured state and federal funds for a DNA lab, but has no equipment.

Serpas declined comment on this story, referring Gambit to the mayor's office. Landrieu's office issued a written statement from Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, deputy mayor of public safety and homeland security, who also responded to follow-up questions via email.

  While the State Police lab may be delaying certain cases, it also has been turning around "certain priority cases in no longer than it would have taken a local lab to test," Sneed wrote. He could give no deadline for having a DNA laboratory open in Orleans Parish, saying only that the city is "doing everything in our power to have a fully operational crime lab with accredited DNA testing capabilities as soon as possible."

  Asked about the 150 uninvestigated CODIS hits, Sneed responded that "such a scenario is unacceptable, and the mayor and Chief Serpas have been working diligently to restore the public's trust in our Police Department." He wrote that the administration will do "everything in our power to reduce crime and to increase coordination in the criminal justice system so that victims get the justice they deserve."

  Regarding the unspent federal and state grants for DNA equipment, Sneed wrote: "When Chief Serpas learned that the funds were not being used because the previous administration did not authorize it, he immediately directed the chiefs who oversee the crime lab, property room and budget operations to put in place the necessary structure to spend those funds to complete the work.

  "Unfortunately, the last bid for new DNA testing equipment was deemed non-responsive in the last several weeks," Sneed continued. "Equipment is a priority; however, the bid was rejected because of the 'alteration' of the bid, which is a legal rather than financial matter."

  "We are all committed to doing everything possible to combat crime," Sneed added. "We have been working for the last 80-plus days to correct mistakes made in the past."

  Maw, of the Innocence Project, continues to catalog and preserve evidence in hopes that New Orleans will have a model DNA lab again. "It sort of reminds me of when the Germans invaded Poland, and the Germans had all this incredible 20th-century artillery, and all the Polish had were these horses," she says. "If we've got this very serious violent crime problem in New Orleans, then we should be equipping ourselves to fight it with new technology."

cover_story-1.jpg

Add a comment