Target 11 investigates DNA testing delays



PITTSBURGH - DNA helped to put the man who killed Rachel Schweitzer's aunt behind bars, 33 years after the crime.

"Did you guys ever think this case would be solved? Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle asked.

"No," said Rachel Schweitzer, who wasn't even born when the body of 16-year old Mary Irene Gency was found in a hay field in Fallowfield Township, Washington County in February 1977.

Fifty-four-year old Robert Urwin, who had dated Gency at the time, was convicted of third-degree murder in 2011. Another man, 54-year old David Davoli, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension.

"Without DNA we wouldn't be sitting here?" questioned Earle.

"Absolutely. I would have to say it was obviously important because it allowed the case to be re-opened and charges to be filed, " said Schweitzer.

"You probably wouldn't have any answers still? Earle replied.

"Right," said Schweitzer.

All DNA cases except for ones in Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia are handled by scientist at the state police DNA lab in Greensburg.

We sat down with DNA lab director Beth Ann Marne.

"The demand for DNA escalated at a rate that we could not project. We've just been, I hate to say, a victim or our own success. But it has really helped many agencies where they had no leads before," said Marne, who explained that Pennsylvania was also one of the first states to recognize that property crimes could be valuable for DNA testing in providing leads to police.

Marne says over the years that created an enormous backlog. And some of the testing delays have had tragic consequences.

Outside Philadelphia, the Kensington strangler struck again while his DNA sat in the lab, and in Harrisburg, Tahir Gardner was accused of fleeing form police. He spent eight months in jail, until DNA finally cleared him.

"There has been some criticism aimed at State Police for the backlog and delays in testing. Is that fair or unfair?" asked Earle

"I don't want to speak to fair or unfair. I would rather say that with the resources we were given we worked as efficiently as we could. There, unfortunately, were circumstances we would have liked to know about , so we could prioritize them. We certainly don't want a backlog. We used to work with very little backlog, and that's what we strive to get back to so that we can turn cases around faster," said Marne, who explained that test results for homicides and sex assaults are back in 30 to 60 days, while other non-violent crimes like property crimes can take up to six months.

With the help of federal funding, during the last three years the lab doubled its staff and reduced the backlog from 1500 cases down to 600.

"Do you have sufficient resources to do the job?" asked Earle.

"We have put tremendous resources over the past three years. The state police administration has doubled our staffing to meet the demands. We can always use more resources because everyone wants their case done faster, quicker because there is always someone who needs those results, " said Marne.

And Target 11 discovered that there's proposed legislation Harrisburg that some fear may create an even bigger backlog. It would require DNA samples not just form convicted felons as is currently done in Pennsylvania, but from anyone arrested for a serious crime.

While that sounds like a good idea, some say it could have a negative effect.

State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Morningside, spent most of his life in law enforcement, serving as an officer and then as Pittsburgh police chief.

Costa recently toured the DNA lab and said if the legislation passes, it would likely cripple the system. Samples would increase from approximately 20,000 right now to more than 100,000 by 2016.

"It would basically cripple the system. Right now the way it stands, I'm just not looking to test all arrestees because of the impact it would have on the system because we need that system to work to catch the more violent people right now. We don't want to cripple the system. We are pro-law enforcement. We want them to have the tools but we don't want to have the system backlogged to a point where violent people get away," said Costa, who says the DNA lab doesn't have the money or manpower to handle that huge increase in samples.