SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: Old Evidence, New Technology Solving Cold Cases

By: Dana Brueck with photojournalist Mark Schilling Email
By: Dana Brueck with photojournalist Mark Schilling Email

Posted Monday, March 30, 2009 --- 10:00 p.m.

Throughout this month, we're featuring "cold cases" in South Central Wisconsin.

Investigators desperately need tips to help the victims' families find justice. But we're also taking a look at another way investigators put to rest years-old, unsolved crimes -- with technology.

Wisconsin's Attorney General campaigned on a promise to fix the state crime lab's DNA backlog. A year ago, the crime lab had more than 1800 cases in its backlog. Now, the backlog's down to about 600. Last year, the department of justice added 30 new DNA analysts at the lab's two locations. The progress means the lab can process more cases, faster -- including cases that have gone cold.

It's a place few people get to see beyond the front door: the state crime lab in Madison -- a hub of technology and careful analysis.

"I started out a drug identification scientist."

Marie Beth Varriale started at the lab 34 years ago.

"I worked on the first DNA case in the state of Wisconsin."

Today, she oversees the DNA lab.

"We certainly are the largest section of the lab right now."

In June of last year, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen opened the new, expanded DNA lab in Madison, tripling its space. Initially, he also welcomed 19 new analysts at the Madison facility. A lab in Milwaukee also processes DNA cases.

"We believe we'll get rid of the backlog sometime in 2010."

Today, Van Hollen expects to reach his goal -- possibly earlier than the target date! Take a look at the numbers.

In 2006 -- the AG's office says the lab received more than 2200 cases for DNA processing. It completed slightly more than half of them. More than 1700 other cases were left unprocessed at the end of the year.

Two years later, in 2008, the lab received more 3200 cases. It worked more than 4000.

"We're looking at about a 2-month backlog right now," Varriale says.

"We've also made some changes technologically to the way we do business and through, I think, encouraging management. They have done a tremendous job of increasing productivity," Van Hollen says, "Our productivity, I think, averages per month, 4x what it used to be."

And a more efficient lab frees resources to investigate long, unsolved crimes.

"At one point, we really didn't have the staff to do cold cases. We did them when we had virtually almost nothing else to do, which never really happened."

The AG says a 500-thousand dollar federal grant for the Department of Justice pays for retired investigators to take a fresh look at cold cases and for overtime at the lab. A previous federal grant resulted in 4 convictions in cold homicide cases.

"It's not nearly as glamorous as they make it on TV. We're looking at some very nasty stuff sometimes."

But, what the work lacks in glamour, it makes up for in rewards.

"To find a piece of evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime, is extremely exciting for all of these people."

For example, in February, police in Fond du Lac arrested a 53-year-old man for the murder of a young woman more than 30 years ago. The woman's body was found by the side of a road. The state crime lab matched the suspect's DNA, which went on file for another crime, to evidence from the decades-old murder.

"Some say justice delayed is justice denied. Well, it's obviously not true."

The Department of Justice and local investigators determine which cold cases to re-visit using a number of factors --including the potential of DNA evidence, the identification of possible suspects and witnesses, and overall solvability.

We've featured three local cold cases this month. You can find these special assignments at www.nbc15.com.

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