Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Forensic labs flooded with DNA samples
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Terry Dolowy was murdered in 1985 in Wisconsin. Investigators hope that new DNA testing will supply them with fresh leads that will finally solve the case. But a significant backlog of DNA samples at state forensic laboratories means the results may be months away. (Photo Courtesy of LaCrosse County Sheriff's Department)
DNA testing is the biggest thing to hit law enforcement since fingerprinting. The public is familiar with it through television shows like "CSI." But unlike TV, where cases are solved in minutes, real DNA testing can takes weeks or even months. As a result, forensic labs around the country face significant backlogs.

La Crosse, Wis. — For the past 20 years, the murder of college student Terry Dolowy has haunted law enforcement officials in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Investigator Kurt Papenfuss says it's one of the grisliest crimes in local history.

"Feb. 14, 1985, Terry Dolowy was taken from her mobile home in rural LaCrosse County, in Barre Mills," says Papenfuss. "Four days later, on Feb. 18, 1985, her headless, burning body was recovered in Vernon County, just across the LaCrosse County-Vernon County line."

Investigators recovered semen from Dolowy's body. At the time, DNA testing was still a thing of the future. But now that technology is playing a role in the case. These days, Papenfuss is banking on DNA testing for fresh leads.

He's been collecting DNA samples from suspects around the country, for testing at a Wisconsin state forensic lab. But Papenfuss says it takes months to get results.

"I had a comment from one of the analysts. 'It's a 20-year-old murder. Why the rush now?'" Papenfuss says. "I realize they are understaffed and overworked. But the feeling is that these people, the family of Terry Dolowy and the people of Vernon County and LaCrosse County, need some resolution. And this is a solvable case."

Papenfuss isn't alone in his frustration. Mike Roberts works for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. It's his job to oversee the state's three crime laboratories. Roberts says the labs are flooded with samples.

"The difficulty we have in Wisconsin is that we simply are getting a volume of cases that is higher than what we can handle with the number of analysts we have," Roberts says. "In 2003, as an example, we received 1,267 DNA cases as compared to 2004, when we received over 1,600 cases. So we had a 27 percent increase from one year to the next."

Minnesota labs are facing much of the same problem -- too many samples and too few resources. Jim Iverson with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul is in charge of DNA records taken from criminal offenders. Each sample is stored in a national database, and many have helped solve previously cold cases.

Iverson says there's a misconception that DNA from a crime scene, or even from a suspect, can be processed in a matter of hours.

"If I were to sit down and simply concentrate on that one case, I could probably get it done in a week and half to two weeks. But we have to meet national standards for the DNA tests that we do, and rushing doesn't allow you to do that often," says Iverson.

More samples than ever could be destined for Minnesota labs if a bill currently under debate in the state Legislature is passed into law. The proposal calls for everyone arrested on a felony charge to submit a DNA sample.

Right now Minnesota labs process about 12,000 criminal samples each year. Officials estimate that under the new proposal that figure would more than triple, to 50,000 samples each year.

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