Decisions on filing criminal charges in Cook County, Ill. usually are made without the analysis of physical evidence, such as fired ammunition, fingerprints, or DNA samples, even when it is readily available, reports the Chicago Tribune. Constraints at the Illinois State Police Crime Lab in Chicago and a backlog in testing mean that in most cases, evidence that can help to determine who to blame for a crime is not processed until after a decision is made on charges, prosecutors said. Darren O’Brien, the head of the prosecutor’s felony review unit, said his office is left without valuable tools when the public expects flawlessness. The possibility of mistakenly charging someone is sensitive after the debate over reforming the state’s death-penalty system and recent revelations about false confessions and wrongful convictions. “I don’t want an innocent guy to spend one second behind bars,” O’Brien said. “And just as importantly, we should be able to confirm we have the right person when we are on the fence and not have to let the right person go.”
There is a backlog at the lab, said Commander Michael Sheppo of the Illinois State Police Forensic Science Command, but the situation is improving. Even if more money were available, he said, most forensic work probably could not be done in the hours and days police and prosecutors have to decide whether to charge a suspect. The public and even some people in law enforcement expect forensic work to be similar to television crime drama, Sheppo said, where a technician sits down at a computer terminal, taps out a few keystrokes, and is immediately looking at two matching DNA strands, fingerprints, or shell casings. Illinois state labs fare relatively well when compared with other major facilities across the nation, he said. In a still-unpublished study done for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that examined backlogs in America’s 50 largest lab systems, Illinois had a decent showing. The study found that because of an increase in cases and an emphasis on forensic evidence, backlogs increased by more than 130 percent during 2002.