On July 27, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin sent an open records request to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. It was seeking reports on the operations of the state crime lab and whether there continue to be backlogs in processing evidence. Hours after the request was filed, Attorney General Brad Schimel announced that he would authorize overtime and create 11 part-time positions to help law enforcement collect DNA samples and other evidence.
Schimel’s spokesperson added that high-priority cases are already being processed “forthwith.”
The issue initially involved delays in processing of sexual assault evidence, often referred to as “rape kits.” In 2014 — a year before Schimel entered office — a large number of old, untested rape kits were discovered in police evidence rooms. They had never been submitted for testing. Private testing of those kits is now being paid for by grants.
Aware of this history, Schimel had assured the public that the crime lab was able to keep up with its current workload. However, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin found that the amount of evidence awaiting testing has been rising over the past two years. In July, the backlog reached 1,000 cases. Evidence in a variety of criminal cases commonly awaits testing for over two months.
Some DNA evidence, which is frequently submitted in sexual assault, homicide and other cases, has been waiting longer. On July 21, according to the lab reports, 212 cases had been awaiting lab testing for over three months.
Gun and drug evidence are also taking longer to process. On July 21, the reports indicated, evidence in 355 gun cases and 630 drug cases had been waiting longer than two months. In July 2015, by contrast, there were only 140 gun and 80 drug cases that waited that long.
It’s not entirely clear what is causing the delays. The state crime lab’s annual report noted a rise in average processing times since 2013. It concluded the increase was due to a larger number of evidence kits to test, the submission of more complex test requests, expanded workloads and the requirement that lab technicians be trained in new FBI quality standards for forensic evidence.
Much of the attention on this story has been focused on the crime victims’ need to have the evidence in their cases processed in a timely fashion. Even more crucial, perhaps, is that the accused have a right to see and confront the evidence against them within a reasonable period. The evidence may serve to weaken the cases against them, or even to exonerate some defendants.
Every defendant has a constitutional right to confront the evidence being offered against them, and some could be sitting in jail for months pretrial only to learn later they are excluded by delayed DNA tests.