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Police Say DNA Sampling Won’t Choke Las Vegas Lab

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Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A new Nevada law requiring DNA samples to be collected from anyone arrested on a felony charge won’t choke an already backlogged crime lab serving southern Nevada, authorities said, but the chief public defender in Las Vegas worries that high arrest volumes on weekends could lead to mistakes.

State lawmakers adopted Brianna’s Law in the recently completed legislative session and Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the bill into law May 29, days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that collecting DNA from people arrested on felony charges is constitutional nationwide.

During legislative hearings in Carson City, opponents contended that the Las Vegas police DNA lab serving about three-quarters of the state’s population had such a backlog of biomarker samples that it would be overwhelmed by taking on more.

Backers of the measure imposed a $3 fee for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony to help defray program costs, though officials aren’t sure how much that will raise.

Officer Bill Cassell, a Las Vegas police spokesman, acknowledged that a backlog exists for the 12 scientists processing casework DNA from crime scenes and rape kits. But he said DNA samples from felony suspects will be handled by scientists not responsible for the more complex casework DNA.

Cassell said the lab will handle its assigned work.

“The law’s in place — it’s a good law, it’s going to make this state a safer place to be — so we’re going to make it happen,” he said.

From 5,000 to 6,000 DNA samples collected during felony arrests per year are currently handled by two scientists. Cassell said the department expects to hire at least one more scientist to handle a flow of samples that could triple to about 17,000 samples per year.

Cassell said the facility divides DNA work into two sections— casework and sampling.

“There is a big difference in DNA casework and DNA sampling,” Cassell said. “One piece of evidence may have DNA from 10 or 12 people on it, so collection, analysis — all the methods — are exponentially more complicated and exponentially more time-consuming.”

Brianna Denison, namesake of the Nevada law, was abducted and murdered in Reno in early 2008. James Biela was convicted in the case and is currently on death row. Backers of the law argued that Biela might have been caught before killing Denison because he had a prior felony arrest and had raped two women months earlier.

Renee Romero, head of the DNA lab operated by the Washoe County sheriff’s office, said northern Nevada doesn’t have a backlog largely because citizens donated money to process samples during the search for Denison’s killer. That money paid for state scientists and analysts to work overtime during the investigation, and for processing supplies.

Romero said her lab plans to hire an additional scientist and administrative worker in preparation for the increased workload. “If the money is collected as expected, we should be fine,” she said.

Nevada is now one of 26 states with laws to collect DNA samples from people arrested for felonies.

In 2007, New Mexico became the first state to implement DNA testing of people arrested on violent felony charges. Since then, matches have turned up in 457 cases — including 28 homicides and 72 sexual assaults, said Jayann Sepich, co-founder of DNA Saves, a national organization advocating for DNA testing in felony arrests.

Sepich’s daughter, Katie, is the namesake of New Mexico’s law. She was a New Mexico State University student when she was raped, strangled and set afire in 2003. “We know that offenders keep offending and rapists keep raping,” Sepich said. “We also know some rapists go on to murder — like James Biela.”

Since 2011, when New Mexico began collecting DNA after all felony arrests, 10 homicides and 29 sexual assault cases have been linked to previously non-violent felony offenders, said Kayla Anderson, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office in Albuquerque.

John Krebsbach, New Mexico’s administrator for DNA sampling, said that even on weekends when arrests peak, DNA collection hasn’t created a booking bottleneck at jails. Most people are not booked on felony charges, Krebsbach said, or their DNA is already in the criminal justice system.

“It adds about four to five minutes to the total booking process,” he said. “It’s really a minimal amount of time.”

And those few minutes can yield 10 to 20 investigative leads per month, he added.

Currently in Nevada, analyzing DNA from a cheek swab takes about two months. Cassell said that timeframe in Las Vegas was not expected to increase with the implementation of Brianna’s Law.

But Philip Kohn, chief public defender in Clark County, said there could easily be 150 felony arrests in one weekend night in Las Vegas, and that the chances of mistakes being made were high with that kind of volume.

“You can’t have as many people arrested on a Friday and Saturday night in Clark County as you do and not have mistakes,” he said. Kohn added that he opposes collecting DNA from arrestees because the amount of information a sample yields is much more than a fingerprint.

“DNA is more than just identifying information,” Kohn said. “I don’t trust government to handle that and not abuse it.”

Officials have a year to prepare for actual DNA collection once the law goes into effect July 1. Cassell said Las Vegas police projects spending $1.1 million in startup costs and another $1.3 million in first-year operations.

“The situation will require us being very fiscally aware, but this is not a situation where we have the option of saying we can’t afford to do that,” he said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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