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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Lab Spat
noreen-purcell-w-puncher
Department of Public Safety Forensic Laboratory Director Noreen Purcell demonstrates the use of the new lab’s DNA puncher, which readies for analysis DNA from offenders’ saliva swabs.
Wren Abbott

Lab Spat

DNA database tug-of-war uncovers criticism of operation

January 5, 2011, 1:00 am

Forensic technicians didn’t come up with a match to a known offender when they ran DNA from a 2002 Taos rape case, even though the crime was eventually linked to Richard Fresquez, who had recently been released from Central New Mexico Correctional Facility. The rape case went unsolved and, six weeks later, Fresquez bludgeoned and stabbed 22-year-old LeAnne Martinez to death and absconded to California in her Mustang.


Had Fresquez’ DNA been in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) offender DNA database at the time of the rape, it’s possible Taos police would have picked him up before he had a chance to commit the murder. Under the federal DNA Identification Act, DNA from all people arrested for or convicted of certain felonies is put in CODIS. But under the system New Mexico has used for the past 13 years, doing so takes six to eight weeks or longer. The CODIS server is managed by Albuquerque Police Department.


“I think it’s a very good example of how we as a state can do better,” Department of Public Safety Forensic Laboratory Director Noreen Purcell says of the Fresquez case. “It’s no indictment against APD; it’s just that I take it very personally that I don’t want this to happen again.”


Time delay is one of the issues DPS says it could remedy by housing the CODIS server at its headquarters in Santa Fe. Albuquerque Police Department’s DNA Administrative Center doesn’t have the equipment to analyze the DNA, so staff sends it to an out-of-state lab. DPS recently upgraded its forensics facilities with a lab that will be dedicated to analyzing the DNA, making it theoretically possible to get the information into the database much faster.  


Timeliness, however, is not the only issue. Regardless of where the CODIS system ends up, former DPS Chief General Counsel Germaine Chappelle tells SFR, DPS has raised serious issues that need to be addressed.


As reported last week, although FBI personnel have moved the CODIS server up to Santa Fe, Albuquerque Public Safety Director Darren White has thus far prevented anyone from moving the historical samples that have already been entered into CODIS, leaving the whole system somewhat in limbo. 


Chappelle, Purcell and former Public Safety Secretary John Denko call White’s actions the latest in a series of stall tactics. Under pressure from the DNA Oversight Committee, state Attorney General Gary King petitioned the state Supreme Court Dec. 21, to prevent Denko from moving CODIS. The court denied the petition. 


The committee is chaired by John Krebsbach, who is also paid approximately $150,000 annually for his job as director of the DNA Administrative Center.


Neither Krebsbach nor White would respond to questions from SFR.


Calling the CODIS server relocation “politics at its worst,” Gov. Martinez said at a Jan. 3 meeting that she plans to move the server back as soon as this week. 


Denko points out that White, the most vocal opponent of relocating CODIS, campaigned for Martinez during the gubernatorial race and was originally responsible for locating the lab in Albuquerque when he was DPS secretary in the ’90s.


According to Denko, the state budget shortage was the original motivation behind moving the server. The center’s annual budget is approximately $512,000, almost half of it for salaries of three full-time employees. DPS estimates it can do the same work for approximately $121,000 annually.
Jayann Sepich, who after her daughter’s 2003 murder successfully lobbied to broaden the range of crimes that qualify offenders for entry into the database, tells SFR she believes DPS would have to spend more than the center is spending, not less, in order to achieve the quick data turnaround it is claiming. 


“To say they’re going to save $400,000, that’s just impossible,” Sepich says. “I’ve been involved with arrestee DNA for over five years…the City of Albuquerque has just done an incredible job on a shoestring budget.”


The center’s outsourcing cost of $27.45 per sample is considerably lower than the Texas Department of Public Safety’s $30 to $45 per sample, but more than New Mexico DPS’ projection of $20 to $24.


In addition to opportunities for cost cutting, DPS also found numerous items of concern during an audit of the center’s operations for the first few months of 2010. Krebsbach projected outsourcing would cost $35 per sample and appropriated a corresponding amount of money from the DNA ID Fees Fund; the audit finds this was an inflated amount. In addition, center staff admitted to spending some paid hours on open APD cases rather than work related to the DNA database. A work flow analysis shows gaps in accounting for employees’ time. DPS is planning for one forensic scientist already on staff to accomplish the work three full-time employees did. 


“They have to sit on those samples for a number of weeks before they have enough to justify sending it out,” Chappelle says. “I have been very resolute in not slinging mud because that’s not my job and I’m not that kind of person but, yeah, I don’t know what they do.”


However, DPS’ concerns regarding the center’s operations didn’t stop it from considering Krebsbach for a job directing the lab’s operations in Santa Fe, although it now says it doesn’t intend to hire anyone. 


“He has a lot of experience, and I think the concerns we had in the audit were all things we could fix in terms of giving him adequate supervision,” Chappelle says. 


Albuquerque Deputy Police Chief Paul Feist says although it’s possible the center could streamline its operations, staff members haven’t been twiddling their thumbs waiting for data to come back from the out-of-state labs. The staff members’ other duties include double-checking data in the case of a DNA match, supplying state law enforcement agencies with DNA collection kits and notifying agencies of DNA matches, he says. Feist also argues that DPS’ analysis was not a real audit.


Former Department of Public Safety Director John Denko finally got this CODIS offender DNA database moved from Albuquerque to Santa Fe just days before the end of his tenure, but Gov. Susana Martinez plans to move it back this week.

“An audit gives you an opportunity to respond or change things,” Feist says. “So this was never an audit, for one. It was a DPS inquiry, and they found issues of concern I guess, but they never opted for an opportunity to make changes. They never said, ‘You could do them in-house instead of outsourcing and save $400,000.’ APD never had a chance to say ‘Oh, great idea, we’ll do that.’”


Feist points out that, for the past two years, the center hasn’t dipped into general fund appropriations, but has been funded exclusively from the DNA ID Fees Fund. He says the fund will be able to sustain the center indefinitely, nullifying DPS’ argument that the move would save general fund money. Chappelle counters that the fund typically generates $250,000 to $300,000 annually, and the center would run out of money eventually. If a new bill to expand DNA collection to all felony arrests and convictions becomes law, the DNA ID Fees Fund would generate more money annually.


If Martinez moves CODIS back to Albuquerque, Purcell says the new equipment at DPS “won’t go to waste,” but will be used for casework.


“I’m sorry all the roadblocks were put up [obstructing the move], but Albuquerque has been really obtuse about this, especially Mr. White,” Denko says. “He feels that this function belongs to the City of Albuquerque and not the State of New Mexico, and that is not only wrong, but illegal.”

 

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