Zurik: Over 70,000 DNA samples sit untested in NOPD evidence collection

Updated: Jul. 20, 2022 at 10:03 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - If you’re a victim of a non-violent crime in New Orleans, such as a robbery of car theft, the numbers show DNA evidence collected from your crime scene will likely sit in storage forever.

Skip Gallagher, a chemist and forensic science teacher of more than a decade, says DNA is hard-to-dispute evidence in court.

“It is the cornerstone of how cases should be prosecuted,” he says. “It is extremely, extremely difficult to dispute DNA.”

In 2019, documents show the New Orleans Police Department submitted about 722 DNA samples to the state’s crime lab, even though FBI numbers show the city had 4,500 violent crimes, including 774 rapes, 1,000 robberies, 2,100 burglaries, and 121 murders.

In the large majority of crimes in New Orleans, DNA evidence is never used to help a case and never processed.

At last check, NOPD says 73,000 DNA exhibits are stored untested in central evidence and processing. DNA that some experts say could help solve crimes instead of sitting in a room waiting to be processed.

“I’ve talked to officers who have collected those or been present when they’re collected, particularly in personal property crime where say your car was broken into, your home was broken into, and DNA was recovered,” Gallagher says. “There is some hope by the homeowner or the owner of the automobile that ‘wow, that will link this to some particular person and a series of crimes would then be prevented.’”

“But carry that to more severe crimes where there’s rape, murder, some physical assault,” he continued. “And those are even more important that every single one of them is tested. And yet, we don’t know what’s sitting in central evidence.”

More: DNA backlog delaying justice for some families

In May, Fox 8 found the state’s DNA lab has a huge backlog of untested samples. The NOPD has 670 waiting to be processed. Those are samples the NOPD actually decided to send off to be analyzed.

Even if the NOPD sent the 73,000 untested samples to the state lab, it’s likely few would even be processed.

This new information from the NOPD shows the majority of samples collected never make it to the state lab.

Experts say processing more samples could be a way of stopping serial criminals.

“If we think about stopping that next crime,” Gallagher says. “If we have never tested that DNA, there is no way to see that we have a serial perpetrator in any crime. And that is just so disturbing. You have this wonderful forensics tool and it’s not being used, or it’s being used in an emergency basis.”

Data shows, and law enforcement sources confirm, DNA from most carjackings, burglaries, robberies, and even auto thefts, never get sent to the state crime lab.

One source tells FOX 8 that in more serious cases like homicides or sex crimes, police and prosecutors often have to pick and choose which samples to send off.

“Getting a hard science piece of evidence, for example, DNA from blood, digital evidence, way better than fingerprints to pin an offense on a person,” says LSU Health Criminologist Peter Scharf.

It’s unclear if this is contributing to a low solve rate of crimes in New Orleans.

The NOPD recently told the city council in 2021 that only 5% of sex crimes had been resolved.

“Five percent is a disaster,” Scharf says. “And what happens is you erode public confidence. If you fingerprint somebody, they test them, and they don’t process the evidence, the guy’s rock driving around the neighborhood waving at you. There are huge risks of revenge for people who report serious crimes. So we got to fix this fast.”

New Orleans hopes to build its own DNA lab, but that could be years away. Until that happens, there seems to be little that can be done to stop tens of thousands of DNA exhibits from being stored away untouched and unprocessed, unable to help solve crimes.

“We have DNA that is never apparently going to see the light of day. And we still don’t have an appropriate reaction by the city to step up and process that DNA,” Gallagher says. “We’ve got to take some real steps. We’re a major city and we don’t have our own DNA lab. Jefferson Parish has their own DNA lab and they’re able to triage their samples and say look, we need these first and they can go right to their own lab and process their DNA samples and Orleans Parish can’t do that. We have to get in line with the state, and as you found out, that can be a very lengthy wait. We also now know from this that a very small number of samples are even making it into the queue for the state.”

The NOPD issued the following statement in response:

DNA samples remaining at Central Evidence and Property include swabs taken from incidents involving property crimes and other non-violent incidents. Thus far in 2022, NOPD has submitted 240 samples to the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab for analysis. All of those samples were gathered from crime scenes where homicides, shootings, sexual assaults, or other violent crime has occurred.

Given the volume of DNA samples collected, and the fact that multiple law enforcement agencies in the state of Louisiana send their samples to the Louisiana State Police lab, it is not possible for every sample to be sent for analysis. As we have said before, any backlog related to the processing of DNA samples indicates the need for additional DNA testing facilities around the state to help meet the demand from state and local law enforcement.

Any effort to portray a backlog or prioritization of violent crime as anything other than law enforcement working wisely with available resources is misleading.

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