San Francisco police let DNA-testing device sit idle 

A piece of equipment that could have been used to eliminate a DNA-testing backlog in the San Francisco crime lab has been sitting unplugged for the past six years.

In 2004, facing a backlog of more than 500 cases, the San Francisco Police Department purchased equipment — a machine that could analyze 16 pieces of DNA evidence at a time — that would make its DNA-evidence analyzing units’ workload a little lighter.

The issue of the untested DNA came to light after a drug scandal at the crime lab involving former criminalist Deborah Madden, who admitted to stealing small amounts of cocaine. After an audit of the DNA-testing portion of the lab in March, police Chief George Gascon said the SFPD planned to send 1,100 samples to the California Department of Justice at a cost of $75 to $125 apiece for retesting.

While the backlog continues or is outsourced, the piece of equipment bought in 2004 sits unused.

According to an item in a 2005 newsletter of the California Association of Criminalists, the equipment was purchased through state and federal grants and was intended to help The City’s crime lab analyze more of its 500-plus backlogged cases.

Once the machine was purchased, however, the department did not dedicate the resources for tech support, according to the SFPD. Without the tech support, the machine sat unplugged and unused for six years.

Meanwhile, the criminalists continued to analyze DNA evidence one piece at a time.

The instrument, called the ABI Prism 3100, was worth approximately $140,000, but they are no longer produced, according to a representative of the company that manufactured the machines.

At a San Francisco Police Commission meeting Wednesday, Capt. Donna Meixner announced that the machine has been taken under the wing of an SFPD IT engineer and should be up and running within the next eight months.

“We have never had the IT resources in place to hook up this machine,” Commissioner Jim Hammer said.

Exactly why those IT resources were never available is unknown.

“I think it’s important to recognize that it hasn’t been a department IT problem, it’s been beyond the control of the department,” Gascón said.

However, Department of Technology spokesman Ron Vinson said his office had never worked with the Police Department crime lab.

Gathering dust

A machine that tests DNA has not been used by the Police Department since it was purchased six years ago.

$140,000 Cost of equipment

500 Case backlog in 2004 when machine purchased

1,100 Samples sent to state Department of Justice in March

$75-$125 Cost of sending those samples to be tested

350 Case backlog in May

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Katie Worth

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