April 24, 2005

Slaying Highlights DNA Backlog

BOSTON (AP) -- The slow pace of DNA testing in the case of a fashion writer killed more than three years ago on Cape Cod illustrates a frequent complaint by Massachusetts prosecutors: The state crime lab is so understaffed and underfunded it has to ration how many tests local law enforcement agencies may submit.

"It is not a question of the science of the lab," said Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe. "The lab is excellent. The people there are dedicated. The issue is one of capacity."

In March 2004, police investigating the death of fashion writer Christa Worthington took a DNA sample from her trash collector, Christopher McCowen, by swabbing the inside of his cheek. It had been more than two years since her death, and police were taking a second look at about three dozen suspects.

It took several months for the sample to make its way to the State Police Crime Laboratory, and then it took nine more months before chemists matched McCowen's DNA to that of Worthington's killer.

On April 15, McCowen was charged with murder, aggravated rape and armed assault. He pleaded innocent and was ordered held without bail.

Since his arrest, legislative leaders and the administration of Gov. Mitt Romney have pledged to double the crime lab's resources.

The lab, based in Sudbury with satellite offices in Agawam and Danvers, performs a wide range of forensics testing including DNA, fingerprints and drugs.

The DNA lab occupies just 840 square feet, where a dozen chemists handle about 300 tests per year. That's roughly one -sixth of the state's demand, according to lab director Carl Selavka. Once DNA tests begin, it can take six to nine months before results are available. The national standard is 30 days, Selavka said.

Officials said the backlog has doubled in the last few months because of what they said is a burdensome new FBI requirement.

Each month, the state's 11 district attorneys are allowed to submit only four DNA samples.

"All the DAs are ludicrously handicapped in the number of cases that they can present to the lab," said Geline Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

For the Worthington investigation, O'Keefe had to negotiate a special deal with the lab that allowed him to submit up to 10 samples per month, in addition to his district's regular allotment.

Washington, 46, was found stabbed to death in her Truro cottage in January 2002. Her then-2-year-old daughter was clutching her corpse, but was unharmed.

The murder caused a sensation because of the aura of glamour surrounding the former fashion writer who had moved to the Cape from New York four years earlier and settled into life as a single mother.

The crime stumped investigators. Though a broken door indicated a break-in, nothing was stolen or missing. Semen was recovered from the body, but there were no matches to obvious suspects like shellfish warden Tony Jackett, the father of Worthington's daughter, or Tim Arnold, the ex-boyfriend who found her body.

Interest in the case surged in June 2003 with the release of the book "Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod" by Truro resident Maria Flook.

Until late last year, state officials had eased the lab's workload by farming out DNA samples taken from convicted felons to outside firms. The state monitored the work by randomly retesting one out of every 10 convict DNA samples, but the FBI decided that all outside DNA work had to be rechecked before the results could be sent to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, The Boston Globe reported.

The standard applies to all 50 states and the FBI itself, said Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokeswoman for the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va.

Selavka and State Police Maj. Mark Delaney, who oversees forensics at the crime lab, hope that with promised funds, a new building and more staff the lab will be able to handle 1,000 DNA tests a year and cut the average wait to 90 days. Twelve more DNA chemists are being trained and Selavka and Delaney hope to eventually employ 80 chemists at the lab.

Kevin Lothridge, executive director of the Florida-based National Forensic Science Technology Center, said there is a backlog of about 540,000 DNA tests nationwide.

That reality couldn't be farther from the impression given by popular television crime shows, in which test results come back in less than an hour - "after the next commercial break," as Lothridge puts it.

"It's never going to be as timely as everyone would like," he said.