Illinois State Police crime lab makes major improvements to DNA testing backlog

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Friday, August 4, 2023
ISP crime lab makes improvements to DNA testing backlog
There has been a 37% decrease in DNA backlog for all cases that come into all labs in the state, according to ISP forensics.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Major DNA backlog improvements have been made six years after an I-Team investigation uncovered massive DNA delays and murder evidence sitting in Illinois labs.

Robin Woolery, the Deputy Director of Forensic Services at the Illinois State Police, said the state crime lab system has made huge strides in the last few years and has significantly brought down the number of criminal cases that need DNA analyzed.

"The true test is how fast can an agency get their results back to be able to utilize those results and record, or find their bad guy," Woolery said.

According to Woolery, there has been a 37% decrease in DNA backlog for all cases that come into all labs in the state, which includes homicide, sexual assault, any cases that involve a crime against a person, and property crime cases. In addition, the turnaround time has dropped from seven months to four months.

In 2018, Carmia Tang contacted the I-Team about her son's unsolved Chicago murder case. Tang and Chicago police said detectives waited a year and a half for the state's labs to process the DNA found at the crime scene. When the DNA was finally processed, it came back inconclusive.

Her story prompted the I-Team to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to analyze the state's backlog. The I-Team found that in 2018, there were 766 Chicago murder cases waiting to be analyzed by the Illinois Forensic Science Lab. Therefore, law enforcement was not getting the information they needed to catch criminals.

RELATED | 2018 I-Team Investigation: Hundreds of Chicago murders may remain unsolved due to DNA processing delays

The 2018 investigation prompted State Senator Patricia Van Pelt, who chairs the Senate Public Health Committee, to hold the state crime labs accountable through a series of hearings.

"A lot of families now have resolution," Pelt said. "I have to give a lot of credit to Channel 7 because once we got the media involved, they begin to look at it."

Through a new FOIA request, the I-Team found that the state labs have slashed that Chicago murder backlog. Now, they have 118 unfinished DNA lab assignments.

"Obviously, I'm really happy that we've gotten down to where we are," Woolery said. "But we still have a lot more to do. We still have a backlog, and the question has to be, how soon can I get you those results?"

In 2019, Illinois State Police showed the I-Team its new procedures and tools used to reduce the DNA delay in labs. Then, in March 2020, the state began using rapid DNA technology. Rapid DNA can be used when there is a known suspect in a case.

RELATED | Rapid DNA now being used at Illinois State Police crime lab to reduce backlog

Yet, according to Woolery, the biggest difference has been made through the use of robotics.

"Instead of having one analyst do each of those by hand, the robot is set up to be able to extract multiple number of samples quicker," Woolery said.

One place where those robots are being used is Illinois' recently opened, tenth crime lab in Decatur. The state has also hired more analysts in Decatur and other locations while also working to bring in 27 more lab staff members.

Van Pelt wants to shorten the hiring process, though, which can take a year or more.

"It's a special problem with the state of Illinois, because it takes so long for a person to be hired," Van Pelt said. "I really think there's a legislative pathway that may be able to cut through some of that red tape."

Many families have benefitted from these efforts, according to Van Pelt. They did not want to be interviewed on camera, but she said those families have seen cases solved recently thanks to the decrease in the system's backlog.