Governor tours crime lab, but hasn't reviewed untested DNA problem

By: Casey McNerthney , Amy Clancy

Updated:

Washington Governor Jay Inslee toured a State Patrol crime lab Thursday and praised improvements in processing time for DNA tests.

But Inslee has not reviewed, and has not addressed, the problem that is keeping DNA samples from criminals convicted in sexually motivated crimes from being tested.

In early August, a KIRO 7 investigation showed DNA from more than 100 convicted criminals in Seattle was not being tested.

The problem that prevents the Seattle DNA samples from being tested can be solved with a simple fix to a state law. Lawmakers have known about the problem since 2015 and have done nothing to fix it.

As the problem continues, the number of samples grows. Because of the Legislature’s schedule, the earliest the problem can be fixed is summer 2017.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee. (AP photo)

Contacted Thursday, the day of Inslee’s visit to the State Patrol crime lab, a spokeswoman for the governor attempted to get an answer from a staff person who works on legal policy.

“Thanks for bringing this to us,” Deputy Communications Director Tara Lee emailed Monday. “As with any proposed legislation, the governor and our staff will review anything that comes along. However, this particular issue has not been brought to us yet. It is a legal and jurisdictional issue so we will need to review it carefully before making any statement of support or opposition.”

The State Patrol crime lab brought the issue to its advisor at the state attorney general’s office in 2014. The office advised that the crime lab is not allowed to process DNA acquired under municipal convictions.

After seeing KIRO 7’s report in August, Republican and Democratic lawmakers pledged to take action.

“After your initial story, I think some of us got contacted and we realized, ‘Wow, we really need to get this fixed,’” Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall, who is the vice chair of the Public Safety Committee, said earlier this year. “I’m just grateful you’re shining a light on it.”

Speaking generally, Inslee’s staff said in a statement that “DNA from crime scenes is evidence that needs to be tested by forensic scientists to either help identify and prosecute violent criminals, or to exonerate the innocent.”

Possible links to other crimes

The untested DNA samples in Seattle are collected with judges’ orders for an international DNA database.

Criminal convictions under state law are covered for DNA testing at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab. Convictions from city law are not.

Seattle cases are being prosecuted under city law. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said case law requires his office to use city law instead of equivalent state statutes, which have DNA samples entered into the international database.

That delay in testing means convicted criminals may not be linked to other crimes.

Green River Killer Gary Ridgway.

“I’m absolutely convinced we can come with bipartisan support,” Rep. Dan Griffey, a Republican from the 35th District and a member of the Public Safety Committee, told KIRO 7 earlier this year.

Before King County resident Gary Ridgway was identified as the Green River Killer -- the most prolific American serial killer, with 49 known victims and many more claimed – his only criminal history involved arrests for patronizing prostitutes.

Patronizing a prostitute is one of the convictions that now requires a DNA sample, but those samples aren’t being tested in Seattle cases.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said a victim from a recent Seattle case, who learned of the DNA testing problem only after KIRO 7 contacted her. Nearly all the victims had not been notified by authorities.

“It makes me sick to my stomach," said one of victims, who learned of the problem from KIRO 7.

Griffey wants a fix passed as soon as the Legislature convenes in January.

“This is the kind of public safety issue that keeps you awake nights,” Holmes told KIRO 7 in August.

Investigation brings attention to problem

In Seattle, offender DNA samples are required upon conviction of any of the following seven municipal court offenses: sexual exploitation, violation of a sexual assault protection order, communication with a minor for immoral purposes, stalking, harassment, patronizing a prostitute and assault with special allegation.

But because those convictions don’t come under state law, the DNA from Seattle cases is not entered into the DNA database, which has more than 250,000 samples from cases around the world -- mostly unsolved.

Even with bipartisan support, the earliest a law could resolve the issue is summer 2017. And that’s presuming a law is passed as early as possible.

Last year, a House bill addressed only a small portion of the problem: Municipal court convictions for fourth-degree assault in domestic violence and sexual motivation cases would have been covered.

But that bill died in committee.

Before KIRO 7’s investigative report, no Seattle city official spoke about the problem publicly. With no previous news coverage and few people aware of the problem, authorities worried that a fix would take several years.

“We’re writing it as its own bill at this point,” Orwall told KIRO 7 Tuesday. “We don’t want it to get slowed down by other policy legislation. It really needs to be moved through the Legislature as quickly as it can.”

‘Let’s fix it in January’

Both Orwall and Griffey believe the easiest fix would be for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office to charge crimes under the existing state law.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes reiterates that isn’t legally possible.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.

“Under precedent from our Washington State Supreme Court in 2012, it says that municipal prosecutors in a municipal court can only charge and prosecute municipal crimes.”

Officials with the State Patrol crime labs told KIRO 7 they know of no other cities with the same DNA problem as Seattle. But they say it is possible, and the issue could be larger than Seattle.

Whatever the fix needs to be, Orwall and Griffey promise to get it done as soon as possible.

“Absolutely,” Griffey said. “Let’s fix it in January.”

KIRO 7 will continue to follow any progress.

State Patrol crime lab tour Thursday

Inslee and State Patrol Chief John Batiste visited the Marysville crime lab  Thursday to learn more about principles that his staff said resulted in a sharp reduction of processing times for forensic DNA tests.

In 2014, the crime lab  launched a Lean improvement effort to handle an ever-growing caseload of DNA testing requests, Inslee spokeswoman Jamie Smith said in a statement. The DNA from crime scenes is evidence that needs to be tested by forensic scientists to either help identify and prosecute violent criminals, or to exonerate the innocent, she said.

Lean improvement in the effort in  state agencies to streamline work and create savings. In the case of the Marysville crime lab, forensic scientist Kristina Hoffman worked with staff from Inslee’s better-government initiative.

Because of the improvements, the lab was able to cut 18 days off the average turnaround time for DNA testing, going from 88 days to 70 days, according to Inslee’s office. That’s a 20 percent reduction in processing times.

The backlog of cases needing testing was cut by 10 percent and staff overtime dropped 56 percent, saving thousands of dollars a year, Inslee’s staff said.

“This type of innovation allows for agencies like the Washington State Patrol to more efficiently use our resources and deliver better customer service to our clients,” Batiste said in a statement. “We are delivering accurate and reliable results to customers faster, which helps enhance public safety.”

The DNA samples that remain untested in Seattle – including new ones being added to the caseload – are being held in coordination with the Seattle Police Department’s evidence unit in hopes of a legislative fix.

No one is sure exactly how long the samples will stay there.

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