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State crime lab's problems have put murder cases on hold

By Karen Florin

Publication: The Day

Published January 30. 2012 4:00AM   Updated January 30. 2012 3:50PM
Loss of certification is resolved, but resulting backlog may last years

Police say that Irene Reynolds, a 40-year-old mother of three from Baltic, got away with murder for almost two decades.

Reynolds, held in prison since she was charged two years ago with beating and strangling her adoptive mother, Bertha Reynolds, on July 9, 1993 in Norwich, says she is not guilty and wants a trial.

The case is on hold, however, because the state crime laboratory is presently unable to conduct testing on key physical evidence from the crime scene.

The forensic lab in Meriden, years behind in testing physical evidence in all but the highest-priority cases, lost its certification from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLAD) in August 2011. The FBI also audited the lab and stopped allowing it to submit DNA information to a national databank.

State officials say the situation has been resolved with an additional $2.9 million in funding for the lab and changes to the management structure. Michael P. Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the state Office of Policy and Management, said Friday was the last day of the national accreditation organization's reinspection of the crime lab.

"Assuming everything goes well, and we have every reason to believe it will, the board will vote on Feb. 7 on whether or not to reinstate the accreditation," Lawlor said.

Still, the lab faces a backlog of more than 10,000 cases in which evidence has to be tested.

Lawlor and Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane, both members of a working group that Gov. Dannel Malloy appointed to address the lab's problems, stress that the lab's processes and staffing levels were the problem, not the lab's work product.

"The competence of the scientists and the results of their testing was never an issue," Lawlor said. "It was more of a management issue in terms of making sure all the protocols were made up to date."

Lawlor said the state allocated the additional $2.9 million for lab personnel last year because federal funding for some positions was ending as of July 1 and the scientists were concerned about losing their jobs.

Kane said one problem was that the lab's managers and administrators also were examiners who work directly with evidence.

"The analysts would follow the procedures, but there were a lot of incidents in which the fact that they had done it step by step was not properly documented," he said.

Also, Kane said, there's been a longstanding funding problem at the lab, and the speed and the nature of scientific advancements are putting a drastic pressure on the lab.

The lab has started to limit the amount of evidence it will test but still considers homicide investigations such as the Reynolds case a high priority. The lab testing will determine if DNA recovered from Bertha Reynolds' fingernail scrapings and hairs stuck to a ring she wore matches a sample taken from Irene Reynolds after her arrest.

"It's important to both sides that we have this information," said Reynolds' attorney, Linda J. Sullivan. "It's either going to be neutral or it's going to help one of us or the other."

Bertha Reynolds, 60, was found at the bottom of a basement staircase in her home at 84 Laurel Hill Ave., Norwich. The case went unsolved for 17 years, until the Southeastern Connecticut Cold Case Unit obtained a videotaped statement from a former friend of Irene Reynolds. The woman told police she saw Reynolds attack her mother after the two fought about money.

Reynolds has been held at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution since her arrest in May 2010. Her bond, initially set at $2 million, was reduced to $1.5 million last year but is still out of reach for Reynolds, who was delivering newspapers for a living when she was arrested.

In the normal course of events, New London State's Attorney Michael J. Regan would extend a plea offer to Reynolds, who would then decide whether to accept the offer and plead guilty or reject it and have a trial.

Without the DNA test results, Regan is unable to calculate the prison sentence he would offer Reynolds in exchange for a guilty plea. The small amounts of evidence in the case are expected to be consumed, or used up, during the DNA testing process, so there will be only one testing opportunity. The defense likely will have its own expert observe the testing and review the results, according to Sullivan.

Regan said the crime lab has always been cooperative and has never refused any requests for testing of evidence collected at the scenes of serious crimes.

"If there's a piece of evidence where the examination has to be expedited, the lab will cooperate," he said. "We understand we have to wait in line through the normal course of business in other matters."

According to an October 2011 report to the crime lab working group, the lab had a backlog of 4,157 DNA cases. The firearms/toolmark section, which examines guns, had 2,655 cases pending. The fingerprint section had a backlog of 1,807 cases, and the section of the lab that tests biological samples had a backlog of 1,331 cases.

Other sections, including the ones that screen blood samples for toxicology results and analyze computers for evidence of financial and sexual crimes, had hundreds of cases pending.

Kane said he hopes it takes "less than years" to catch up once the lab is recertified. He said the lab has done a good job of prioritizing cases, with homicides and sexual assaults with no suspects at the top of the list. He said other states are having "phenomenal success" solving burglary cases using so-called "touch DNA" collected from the points of entry or egress at crime scenes, but that in Connecticut "we're hardly doing burglaries at all."

"It's important to public safety and to justice to resolve this as fast as we can," said Kane.

k.florin@theday.com

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