06/01/2013 07:00 EDT | Updated 08/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Vancouver RCMP DNA Lab Impedes Court Cases: Review


OTTAWA - A West Coast RCMP lab that analyzes crime-related DNA samples is slow to deliver results, sometimes impeding court cases, says a new review.

"It took between three to four months for a DNA result from the time a sample was sent to the lab," says the study of the Vancouver lab, ordered by the federal Justice Department.

"Investigators felt that the average turnaround time was simply too long, and that it could be improved upon. ..."

"One of the reasons provided for why this amount of time was too long was related to pending court dates where results coming after a court date would not be helpful."

The RCMP's forensic labs, which include DNA testing, have come under sharp scrutiny in Parliament in recent years, after two reports from the auditor general and one from a Senate committee found they were poorly run and too often backlogged.

In May last year, the cash-strapped Mounties announced they were closing half their labs — in Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax — to trim $3.5 million a year from their budget, consolidating operations in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa.

At the time, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the move would make the labs more efficient and reduce backlogs.

Turnaround times for DNA samples across the country rose in the mid-2000s, the auditor general found in a 2007 report, as the labs struggled to keep up with police demands. By 2006, police detectives were waiting almost 114 days on average for results.

The review of the Vancouver lab, which looked at 587 DNA files, found little change in turnaround times — an average of 107 days for the period 2006 to 2011. A few files took more than a year.

The researchers also found no clear rules about which DNA samples were shunted to the top of queue, whether by severity of the crime or pending court date.

"The lab ... confirmed that there was no real formal prioritizing policy in place, although informally, a case priority could be negotiated based in the specifics of the case."

The $19,200 study, by three researchers at the University of Fraser Valley, reviewed DNA lab requests made by police departments in Vancouver and Abbotsford, B.C., as well as six RCMP detachments in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. Fifteen police investigators were also interviewed.

Almost two-thirds of the cases involved break-and-enters, and three-quarters were blood samples.

The researchers found that DNA matching proved to be powerful evidence in court.

"In terms of its prosecutorial usefulness, of the 155 files in this sample in which information was present about the outcome of the court process, 84 per cent resulted in an offender being found guilty, pleading guilty, or pleading guilty to a lesser or included offence."

The report did not investigate how slow delivery of DNA lab results may have impacted specific court cases.

A spokeswoman for Justice Canada, Carole Saindon, said the study was ordered following a recommendation in a June 2010 Senate committee report that reviewed the DNA Identification Act.

Committee witnesses complained of the lack of hard data about how DNA results were affecting police investigations and court cases.

The RCMP says it uses a different methodology for calculating average turnaround times than was used for the Vancouver review, so numbers cannot be compared.

Sgt. Greg Cox said in an email that the force in 2009 introduced a new system to improve efficiency and DNA turnaround times, which have been reduced nationally from an average of 140 days in 2008-09 to 44 days in 2011-12, using the RCMP's methodology.

The RCMP's crime labs handle a range of forensic analysis, including fingerprints, ballistics, toxicology, blood-spatter, counterfeiting and DNA, which has become a key tool for police and prosecutors since 1988, when DNA evidence was first accepted in a Canadian courtroom.

An individual's unique DNA can be obtained from minute amounts of blood, semen, saliva, hair and teeth.

Ontario and Quebec, which operate their own provincial police forces, have established separate forensic labs.

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