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Labs improve DNA turnaround, tool mark cases taking 3 years

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s beleaguered crime labs improved their turnaround times on DNA and ballistics testing last year but took longer to complete drug and tool-mark analysis, according to a state Justice Department report released Thursday.

The data present a mixed bag for Attorney General Josh Kaul as he heads into campaign season. Kaul ran in 2018 on a pledge to improve the labs’ efficiency and last year promised dramatically improved turnarounds. Kaul said during a news conference he was happy about the labs’ performance, especially since analysts spent 2020 juggling a mix of staggered at-home and in-lab shifts because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’ve largely kept up with their work,” he said. “The crime labs met the challenges of the pandemic and kept staff safe.”

Like many state crime labs across the country, Wisconsin’s facilities have struggled to keep up with police and prosecutors’ demands for DNA results for years. The genetic marker is the gold standard for identifying suspects and can seal convictions. According to the report, Wisconsin’s labs took an average of 94 days to complete an analysis, three fewer days than they needed in 2019.

Fewer submissions from investigators helped; the labs took in evidence in 580 fewer DNA cases last year than in 2019. Still, Kaul noted that the labs processed tests faster despite spending time training analysts on new technology that can extract profiles from previously indeterminate mixes of DNA.

Ballistics is also a key testing area. Those tests are key to tracing guns used in crimes. According to the report, the labs’ firearms unit took an average of 247 days to complete a test, 11 days faster than in 2019 even though submissions increased by nearly two dozen cases.

But drug tests and tool mark analysis lagged.

The average turnaround time for a drug analysis was 44 days, 11 days longer than in 2019 even though the labs saw about 1,000 fewer submissions. The report noted that social distancing requirements played a role in the delays. Kaul added during his news conference that the labs are dealing with more complex tests involving synthetic opioids.

Tool mark analysis turnaround times, already months long, ballooned from an average of 235 days in 2019 to 1,164 days, or a little more than three years, in 2020.

The firearms unit handles tool mark analysis as well as ballistics. The report said the unit was hampered by an unfilled vacancy in 2020. Kaul said testing also was delayed because the firearms unit had only four people trained in tool mark analysis and had to spend half the year training two more analysts. He also noted that tool mark cases are a lower priority for the firearms unit since they’re property crimes.

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