Advancing justice

Advancing justice

Students, faculty and private labs enlisted to help ease DNA backlog.

Joanna Law working with test samples in a laboratory.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Criminalist and Cal State L.A. alumna Joanna Law, M.S. ’09, demonstrates her work at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, showing how evidence is tested in a student training lab.

Four Cal State L.A. graduate students will be combing through history this fall, as they partner with Los Angeles’ law enforcement to help ease a DNA backlog in sexual assault cases, prioritizing and targeting unsolved crimes

The students’ evidence documentation is one part of a three-pronged program—the Smart Backlog Reduction Program—funded by a $1 million federal appropriation awarded to the California Forensic Science Institute in July. The program brings together the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Cal State L.A. and the CFSI to find creative, long-term solutions to address the county’s DNA backlog.

Portrait of Rose Ochi '67
Rose Ochi ’67

“We have a unique, cooperative agreement among all the partners in this facility and that makes it fairly simple to convene those partners to work together and create solutions,” said Rose Ochi ’67, executive director of CFSI, a presidentially chartered institute.

Through the program, officials plan to target cases for analysis, outsource testing to private labs and train professionals on the use of the new technology and tools.

“It will be wonderful when (the graduate students) start,” said Joanna Law M.S. ’09, a recent graduate alumna and newly hired criminalists with the Sheriff’s Department. The graduate students will provide relief to criminalists, such as Law, who have been working to document evidence in the backlogged cases and ship out samples for lab analysis.

Portrait of Harley Sagara
Harley Sagara

“For the students in the master’s program, I believe the work will be a breeze,” she said of the evidence documentation. “It’s a very hands-on program, and you are very prepared to work.”

The students’ role in targeting cases, CFSI Training Director Harley Sagara said, is critical to the overall process. They will log into the evidence tracking systems, contact investigators, the courts and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office to find out which cases could benefit from DNA evidence. In many sexual assault cases, the identity of the attacker is known—precluding the need for DNA evidence.

“The question is, which cases will give us the biggest bang for our buck,” Sagara said. “The students’ research and their notes on the status of the backlogged evidence will enable the departments to actively select those cases where the issue is discovering the identity of the assailant.”

Sagara said he expects the students to document about 2,000 of the backlogged cases, giving each agency a much better idea of which DNA kits to analyze.

With their shares of the funding, the law enforcement agencies will also pay to outsource roughly 200 to 250 DNA cases for analysis with private labs. These cases are beyond the capacities of the departments to test internally, and are very costly to process, said Sagara.

“Prioritizing is going to be a better use of this money and the possibilities of a match and the collection of useful information that will aid in other cases will increase significantly,” Ochi said.

Another added bonus of involving students in the fact-finding and case—organization process, officials said, is that it will free up criminalists’ time to do lab analysis and participate in advanced forensic science training courses. Don Johnson and Kathy Roberts, both faculty members in the University’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics, will be devoting extra time throughout the year to share information about technological advances and train professionals.

“We will be giving practicing criminalists the ability to evaluate new technologies and to be trained on how to use them,” Sagara said. “If something new and innovative comes along, but you sit in the lab and don’t hear about it, then you can’t benefit from it.”