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first_imgMichelle Collins demonstrates how to use one of the machines that processes DNA samples. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)A recent legislative audit of the state’s Crime Lab said the facility isn’t meeting its target speed for processing Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) kits, which include biological evidence gathered after an alleged sexual assault. A scientist at the lab explained that the process is complicated.Listen nowForensic Biology supervisor Michelle Collins flashed her key card to open the doors into the entry room of the DNA laboratory at the state’s Crime Lab.“We’re gonna wear masks because when you talk, you spit a lot of DNA out,” Collins said, slipping a surgical mask over her face. She explained it is easy to taint evidence that only has tiny bits of DNA on it, so the forensic biologists take a lot of precautions. She goes through another set of doors into the screening room.Collins said that modifying the screening process has been key to fixing the lab’s DNA backlog problem. In December of 2014, the lab had 387 backlogged DNA cases, which includes SART kits and other biological evidence. Forensic lab accreditation programs say they should be processed within 30 days.To fix the problem, lab managers streamlined the process. Now screeners not only locate DNA on evidence, but they also quantify it to see if there is enough present to create a DNA profile. That made it easier to finish some cases more quickly, Collins said.At the end of 2016, the backlog was down to 117 cases.Being fully staffed has helped as well, Collins said. “It’s very easy to get in a hole when you lose a staff member, and it takes a long time to get back out of it.”But according to Collins, lab work isn’t what makes processing DNA evidence so time consuming. It’s the paperwork. Once a DNA profile is created, it has to be interpreted. Sometimes it’s simple – a sperm sample collected during a sexual assault exam typically only contains information about one person. But samples from scrapings under someone’s fingernails aren’t that easy.“Our reality is that our profiles are often mixtures of two, maybe three, maybe more individuals,” Collins said. “And that interpretation is very complex.”The sample collection tools inside a SART kit, which is used for sexual assault investigations. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)Once a scientist interprets the data, it’s sent to another person for verification. The back and forth can take a lot of time.For the Crime Lab, the goal is to process 90 percent of all the evidence sent there within 30 days. According the legislative audit, in July it was finishing only about half of its cases within that time frame.Collins explained that processing some tests, like drug identifications, is easy to do within the time limit, but that’s not the case for identifying DNA in SART kits that contain multiple different samples. She said her team tries to complete those within 60 days.“Well, believe it or not, in Anchorage, we feel like the kit turnaround is pretty good,” Lt. John McKinnon with the Anchorage Police Department said.It used to take over a year to get results from sexual assault kits, McKinnon said. Now he gets preliminary results in about three weeks or a month. He said sometimes faster would be better.“In some situations where we don’t know who the suspect is, it delays the investigation because we don’t know who we’re looking for,” McKinnon said.The Crime Lab does prioritize those types of cases, as well as ones involving minors.However, most sexual assault investigations don’t actually hinge on the SART kit results, McKinnon said. Often the victim knows the assailant, and the investigation is focused on the issue of consent.The kit, a small white box filled with labeled envelopes and tools to collect biological samples, is just one tool among many, he said. They also interview people, collect evidence, and work with nurses to conduct forensic exams.All of the information goes into a months-long investigation, McKinnon said.But Collins, from the Crime Lab, said attention is often drawn back to the kit and the DNA evidence it contains. She called it the CSI effect –expectations created by crime investigation TV shows.“They solve them a lot with DNA during TV shows,” Collins said. “So they definitely create an expectation that DNA is the answer, and that’s not always the reality.”As a result, Collins said her lab is sometimes asked to process SART kits, even if the prosecutor doesn’t need the information to pursue the case.At the end of 2016, the lab had 59 more backlogged kits to process. Collins said they’re staffed well enough to be on track to finish them all soon.last_img