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Crime lab backlogs soared after Baltimore prosecutors pushed to test every gun

At the urging of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, the city’s crime lab in 2018 began giving top priority to testing recovered firearms for DNA and fingerprints. The new policy led to a major backlog of other lab work, a report found. (AP Photo/Philip Kamrass, File)

In August 2018, amid relentless gun violence sweeping the city, the Baltimore Police Department’s forensic laboratory dramatically shifted priorities: The lab began processing every recovered firearm for fingerprints and DNA instead of testing guns on a case-by-case basis.

The policy change came at the urging of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, which faced pressure to address gun crime and believed that forensic testing would make for stronger evidence in firearm possession cases.

But crime lab management objected to the move, and in 2020 the lab produced a report that found the policy was, by most metrics, a failure. The remarkably frank report argues that the policy did little to benefit gun prosecutions but contributed to ballooning backlogs in homicide and sex offense cases.

The Daily Record obtained a copy of the report through a Public Information Act request.

The report also suggests that the crime lab was forced to slow forensic testing in entire categories of violent crime, including carjackings and robberies, to handle the massive influx of firearms in need of processing. The new focus on guns did not differentiate between violent gun crimes and nonviolent cases, such as firearm possession.

Click this image to see the forensic laboratory report.

Click this image to see the forensic laboratory report.

“Backlogs have increased exponentially, investigative (DNA) matches have decreased, and some specific case types are no longer being routinely worked,” wrote Kenneth B. Jones, a deputy director in the Forensic Laboratory Section who authored the 2020 report. “Prior to the 2018 policy change, this was not the case.”

The gun-testing policy was reversed earlier this year, said Rana DellaRocco, the chief of BPD’s Forensic Laboratory Section. Firearms are once again processed on a case-by-case basis; nonviolent possession cases and found guns are no longer prioritized, she said.

It remains unclear, though, why the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office was able to exert so much control over the crime lab’s operations in 2018 and why police leadership ignored laboratory management’s concerns to put the policy in place.

Chief Counsel Erin Murphy said the state’s attorney’s office made the request because defense lawyers often pointed to a lack of DNA testing in firearm cases that went before juries. (Murphy was not working in the office when the policy was implemented, but worked closely with DellaRocco when the mandate was revisited this year.)

“It is a very easy argument to say to juries, ‘There is no DNA evidence or any CSI-type evidence,'” Murphy said. “Jurors are discriminating. Jurors are even more discriminating in Baltimore city, so I think it was an effort to get everything we can on every single gun case.”

Both Murphy and Lindsey Eldridge, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department, emphasized that the policy change was a collaborative effort between the department and the state’s attorney’s office.

In an interview, DellaRocco attributed the request from the state’s attorney’s office to the “CSI effect,” the belief that juries expect to see forensic testing in criminal cases because of the influence of television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

“Some of these things start out as anecdote and then, we have data to push back, but the partners sometimes don’t, and they have these feelings or the sense that it works, but they don’t really understand that it doesn’t,” DellaRocco said.

In response to The Daily Record’s PIA request, the Baltimore Police Department said that in 2018, then-Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Blomquist raised concerns to then-Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle that prosecutors were losing gun cases because the crime lab did not routinely conduct DNA testing on firearms.

“Despite having no data to support this claim and despite objections from crime lab leadership it was decided that (handgun violations) would be the number one case type for the lab,” BPD’s Office of Legal Affairs wrote in the PIA response letter.

“After several years of the mandate being in place, the crime lab conducted a study on its efficacy. The conclusion that was reached that it is a major draw on the lab’s resources and does not produce any benefit to court cases that are apparent.”

Tuggle served as interim police commissioner for less than a year before being replaced by the current commissioner, Michael Harrison.

Blomquist was the chief of the division that prosecuted gun cases when he made the request in 2018, according to BPD. He is now a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge. A spokesperson for the judiciary, Bradley Tanner, declined a request for comment on Blomquist’s behalf.

The city’s crime lab has been plagued by problems and backlogs for years. In the span of just a few days last year, the lab saw two major scandals: First, a lab supervisor came forward and claimed the crime lab was sitting on thousands of untested fingerprints in nonviolent crimes, including burglaries. Then, the department told The Baltimore Sun that months of work by a firearms examiner had been compromised and could not be used in cases.

Backlogs are not unusual at crime labs, which have received a growing number of requests for DNA analysis in recent years, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In Baltimore, a variety of factors contributed to backlogs and the push to focus on guns. In 2017, the crime lab’s Forensic Biology Unit took over responsibility for processing a backlog of evidence from the Latent Print Unit, according to the 2020 BPD report.

In July 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began requiring stricter deadlines for processing firearms soon after they were submitted to labs.

The combination of these factors “created the situation where firearms processing is now prioritized above all other casework and case types,” Jones wrote in the report.

The report makes clear, however, that the test-all-guns policy was a major drain on resources at the laboratory, forcing technicians to redirect scarce resources to thousands of firearm cases that otherwise would have been low priority.

Other casework suffered. According to the report, the backlog in preliminary forensic screening for homicide cases jumped by more than 200% from July 2018 to December 2019. The screening backlog in sex offenses jumped by 80%.

The backlog in DNA testing for homicide cases rose by 56%, while in sex offenses the backlog fell by 14%.

In all, the lab’s total screening backlog increased by 111%, or 156 cases, and its DNA testing backlog jumped by 41%, or 1,073 cases, according to the report.

Click this image to see the sexual assault investigations report.

Click this image to see the sexual assault investigations report.

The time it took to test Sexual Assault Forensic Exams, known as SAFE Kits, also grew while the gun-testing mandate was in place. According to a report on sexual assault investigations that BPD produced as part of its federal consent decree, the median number of days it took for a SAFE kit to be processed nearly doubled, from 112 days in 2019 to 202 days in 2020.

The sexual assault investigations report attributed the slower results to three factors: initial COVID-19 lockdowns, the time required to train two new hires, and “an ongoing mandate for the lab to work on processing handgun violation evidence.”

The gun-testing policy also didn’t work from the prosecution’s standpoint, the 2020 BPD report found.

Only about 6% of handgun cases processed resulted in charges. Of those, less than half resulted in a guilty verdict, according to the report, while the remaining cases were either dismissed or had no clear outcome.

“Over 100 of the 159 cases forwarded and processed for DNA had no clear judicial purpose or outcome,” Jones wrote in the report.

Crime lab management expected that the gun-testing policy would have limited success. The lab had already undertaken a study in 2012 that found forensic testing of firearms did not produce enough results to justify the use of lab resources except in select cases.

That study concluded the lab should take a more “focused and restricted approach to firearms testing” — a recommendation that was overruled when prosecutors requested the gun-testing mandate in 2018.

The 2020 report concluded that the test-all-guns policy should be reversed to give the crime lab more freedom to test other important cases.

“The value of adjusting tactics within the Forensic Biology Unit to re-achieve the frequent testing of carjackings, assaults, robberies and other similar case types should not be underestimated,” Jones wrote in the report.

“Many homicides occurring in the city start as these other case types or are perpetrated by repeat violent offenders who may regularly commit them,” he wrote. “Pushing these cases to the side in favor of testing case types with demonstrably low-value outcomes is counterproductive.”