Cases dictate when evidence is processed

The analysis of evidence in criminal investigations can be a time-intensive process and does not provide instant results. The state’s crime labs have a backlog of cases, and complex investigations take a lot of time to complete. Slowdowns might occur anywhere in the process.

Four cases from Thurston County provide insight into why it sometimes takes so long to complete investigations.

Lacy Willcoxson

Newlywed Lacy Willcoxson, 19, died of a gunshot wound July 9, 2006, after she and her husband quarrelled as a party was breaking up at their Windsor Lane apartment in Tumwater.

Tumwater police initially investigated the case as a suicide or possible homicide but did not finally rule that the fatal gunshot wound was self-inflicted until January.

Part of the reason for the six-month wait for the crime lab’s final report was analysis of DNA evidence, Tumwater detective Jen Kolb said.

The wait also was due in part to heavy caseloads at the crime labs, including a four-person homicide and arson in Kirkland, a crime lab spokesman said last year.

DNA clears innocent man

In a recent Olympia case, quick DNA analysis exonerated a man arrested in connection with the Feb. 5 rape of an 11-year-old girl, then helped lead to another man’s arrest.

In this case, however, a new program started by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs aimed at speeding up DNA analysis in “stranger” rape cases allowed Olympia police to bypass the backlog at the state crime lab and use a private DNA lab instead.

After DNA evidence from the rape cleared one man, a DNA analysis of saliva from another man, Peter Jacob Inouye, led to his arrest, police said.

Olympia Police Lt. Steve Oderman said that the analysis of Inouye’s saliva took less than a week because of the program; typically, it might have taken months.

WASPC executive director Donald Pierce said the idea for the program came after local law enforcement and crime lab officials concluded that stranger rapes in which no suspects were yet identified were one type of DNA case that was backlogged at state labs. There are an estimated 200 stranger rapes in the state each year.

“These are cases that won’t go into their backlog,” Pierce said of the pilot program that secured $750,000 in federal funds in 2006 to start the program.

A detective at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office said last week that the office was using WASPC’s “stranger rape” program to analyze the DNA of persons of interest in the rape of an 11-year-old that occurred after someone unlawfully entered her trailer in her Centralia home March 16.

WASPC helped launch the “stranger rape” DNA project this year, and the program was made possible with federal funding secured by Washington state’s congressional delegation, according to a WASPC news release.

Rape on Chehalis trail

A 1999 attack involving a 27-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted while walking on the Chehalis Western Trail might never have been solved if not for DNA evidence, Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball said.

DNA from a cigarette butt found in an abandoned car at an apartment complex near where the 1999 rape took place matched DNA taken from the assault, which helped investigators find the owner of the car in California in 2000, Kimball said. The California man was convicted of the rape, and “without that (cigarette), we may never have solved it,” Kimball said. “You have these kinds of success stories.”

Alex Ward

Last year, the toxicology lab in Seattle had a quick turnaround in its test for Alex Ward, the North Thurston High School football player who died in a one-car wreck on Johnson Point Road on Sept. 10. The lab received a blood sample from Ward, 18, from the Thurston County Coroner’s Office on Sept. 14, according to a toxicology report obtained by The Olympian after a public-records request.

The lab analyzed Ward’s blood and returned the results to the coroner’s office a day later, on Sept. 15, the report states. The results showed Ward had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.03 percent at the time of his crash, showing a slight level of alcohol consumption. The legal limit for blood-alcohol content while driving is 0.08 percent. Although the lab sent the coroner’s office the results Sept. 15, the State Patrol, which conducted the investigation, did not release the results until January.

Cases can jump ahead

Despite Washington's long waiting list for DNA analysis, specific cases can jump to the front of the line if they fall into one of three categories:

* Cases in which police have a suspect committing violent crimes and need to have specific evidence analyzed so the suspect can be arrested.

* Cases in which an arrested suspect has a trial date and DNA results must be available for the trial.

* Cases in which a judge issues a court order that requires DNA to be analyzed immediately and given to a suspect's defense lawyer.

Increasing demands

* As of January 2001, the labs' DNA backlog was 260 cases, with an average wait of 108 days. As of January 2007, the backlog was 960 cases, with an average wait of 256 days.

* In 2001, the labs received 1,252 DNA cases; that increased to 2,128 in 2006.

* The labs' budgets and staffs have grown from $19.83 million and 115 employees in the 2001-2003 biennium to $27.36 million and 137 employees in the 2005-2007 biennium.

Source: Washington State Patrol, Forensic Laboratory Service Bureau