An interview with Angelo Della Manna, chief of forensic biology and DNA for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.
What services does your laboratory provide?
Della Manna: The Forensic Biology and DNA section works primarily in two areas related to biology: we identify individuals who have committed crimes in unsolved cases and identify individual biological stains that may be present upon evidence recovered from crime scenes. This work is done in four regional labs throughout the state. An additional service we provide to our citizens is administering the state DNA database (or CODIS) program, which is a separate laboratory that oversees analysis of DNA samples collected from individuals who have provided a sample (because they have a qualifying offense-either through a felony conviction or at the point of arrest). As a result of a new state law passed in October 2010, law enforcement is now also authorized to collect a DNA sample at the point of any felony arrest or in the case of a small subset of misdemeanors, rather than just collecting from individuals convicted of any felony charges in Alabama.
Our agency is part of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, which is a full-service forensic laboratory system-the second oldest in the country-and created as an independent agency by the legislature in 1935. We are the only crime lab system in the state. The Department's main services, beyond forensic DNA analysis, are pathology, which includes conducting autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death; examining firearms and controlled substances (drugs and drug chemistry); and performing forensic toxicology analysis to determine if there are any drugs or poisons in the blood or urine or other biological fluids-both from living people who have provided samples (as in DUIs), and from our decedents in autopsies. We also administer the statewide implied consent testing-testing of breath samples collected when people are pulled over for suspected DUIs-and the associated blood samples, which are often taken at the police station.
Is it unusual for a state to have just one laboratory system?
Della Manna: Yes, I'd say it's in the minority. Many larger states, such as California, Texas, New York, and Florida, have crime laboratory systems that are separate at the state, county, and local levels. You might have a city lab, such as New York City, a separate county lab, and a state lab that also handles the rural areas. That kind of setup is common in large states. The advantage of having one system is that every law enforcement agency knows our agency, our policies and procedures, and how to get a hold of us. Also, as the only crime laboratory system in Alabama, we examine and test evidence for crimes committed in all jurisdictions. That is important because no one has to determine whether a crime was committed within city or county boundaries, for example, to decide which lab has jurisdiction.
What agencies does your lab serve?
Della Manna: In the Forensic Biology section and the state lab system as a whole, we serve over 450 different law enforcement agencies throughout Alabama--every local police department, county sheriff, state law enforcement, as well as several of the federal entities that reside in our state and conduct investigations here. The federal agencies sometimes ask to submit evidence from their investigations to our agency, and oftentimes that is because they are familiar with our services or they think the turnaround time may be quicker than it would be with their respective federal labs.
How is your work funded?
Della Manna: The funding for our agency is broken down into three categories: About 50 percent of our funding comes through state general fund appropriations-mostly tax-based revenues that fund essential state services-such as forestry, agriculture, the governor's office, and so on. Forensic sciences is a line item in the state general fund. The other half comes from fees and federal grants. The fees are dedicated fees associated with court costs, pursuant to certain convictions. For example, a portion of the DUI conviction fine is earmarked for the toxicology program that analyzes the samples. Similarly, we have a DNA fee for persons convicted of a felony in certain offenses; as part of their court costs, they are required to pay a fine that is earmarked for the DNA database program. The other subset of forensic funding is our federal grant programs, which are primarily for our forensic biology efforts.
Do your services differ from those of other state laboratories?
Della Manna: Emphatically yes, on several levels. The main difference between the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences and perhaps 95 percent of the other labs throughout the country is that we were set up in 1935 as an independent state agency. We are not affiliated with law enforcement or the prosecutors, or under the organizational umbrella of any other law enforcement agency. Under our charter, we conduct analyses for both the prosecution and the defense, and provide the results of our analysis to the courts. So anyone within the criminal justice system-the prosecutor, the defense, or a judge-can request testing on a specific case. That is a major difference between our labs and other labs throughout the country.
Why is that independence such an advantage?
Della Manna: When a criminal case goes to trial and you have competing theories (from the prosecution and the defense) about what the accused did, both entities may have an interest in the other entity not having certain evidence tested. In many states, prosecutors would have no trouble having their evidence tested, but the defense would have a much higher burden because of the lab's affiliation with the prosecutor. In Alabama, if the evidence is relevant and probative and the judge has no problem with it, we will test evidence for either side, and let the results fall where they may. There's also an advantage to our independence in post-conviction analysis.
There is a clear process through our statute for inmates who want to have their evidence tested to do just that. Once these requests are approved, we have the ability to test the evidence and make objective, scientific judgments about it.
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences' report on the state of forensic science recommended separating laboratories from affiliations with law enforcement to promote focusing on the evidence and the results of their analysis. So we are already following those recommendations.
How have advances in forensic affected your work?
Della Manna: DNA has revolutionized our work in my 20 years with the agency. It's been very exciting. Advances in DNA technology have afforded us the ability to go back and revisit so many old cases that other laboratories could not pursue either because of limited resources or other organizational restrictions. We have been very aggressive in going back to sexual assault kits from the 70s and 80s, even before we had the technology, to see if we can get a profile and identify perpetrators. My approach has always been that if a victim has been assaulted- regardless of the date or technology in place at the time of their assault-that he or she should have the latest 21st century technology available and applied to their case in our best effort to identify the perpetrator. Using this mindset, we have been very successful in many previously unsolved cases-many being decades old. As a result, we can provide some form of closure on these cases, even when it comes decades later. We have to keep doing this because we are clearly seeing the fruits of this approach.
Is there a statute of limitations on sexual assault in Alabama?
Della Manna: No, Alabama has an excellent law, and there is no statute of limitations on sexual assault, which has been great for us because we haven't had to overcome any burden in that area. In states that do have a statute of limitations, it really restricts the ability to test old evidence because there can't be a prosecution if the statute has expired. Our challenge has been: is the evidence there, can we locate it in the property room, and can we get it to the lab to test it? Once we overcome those logistical hurdles, we are on our way. There's been a snowball effect, and I spend about 80 percent of my efforts getting certain jurisdictions to understand what can happen when we reopen these cases. I just have to educate local law enforcement and explain that it won't be a major burden for them. If they get me the evidence and their files and see if the victim is alive and willing to prosecute, then from their standpoint, they are done. As that effort has taken hold and we get those first few "hits" in unsolved cases, everyone starts going through their property rooms. Our work has expanded exponentially, and it's allowed us to expand the program to many rural areas throughout Alabama, as well.
How many old cases have you solved or achieved some closure on?
Della Manna: That is a continually moving target because as work develop more DNA profiles on them, continue search them against national database every Monday morning. constantly changes and increases. The number of cases is now the hundreds-well over 500-that we have been able to address in a positive manner.
How do you set priorities?
Della Manna: We try to set priorities by focusing on crimes against persons first before property or burglary and petty crimes. We start with crimes that seriously threaten public safety-such as serial rapes where there are potential future victims. We start working on those right away because we don't want people to be at risk. After that, we prioritize homicide and sexual assaults-both with and without a suspect. We work cases without a suspect both for property crimes and crimes against persons. The final priority would be crimes against property because we have a lot of objective data showing that today's burglar is tomorrow's sex offender. If we work unsolved burglaries and identify the perpetrator in that type of case, then once they have escalated to sexual assault, we already have the data to immediately identify them in this type of more violent crime.
What have been some of your main challenges in running the program?
Della Manna: Some of our main challenges have been funding-related. Because of advances in DNA technology, we have an exponential increase in requests for our services. Not only did we have a backlog of cases in 2010 and 2011, but we've also increased the number of cases that require testing because we have gone back to cases from the 70s and 80s. We don't draw the line and say we will only do cases from this day forward. We just ask whether the case needs to be worked. The biggest challenge is finding resources to test the cases that need testing. When legislators call me about specific cases, I always tell them, "Well, money is the answer. Now what's the question?"
How have you overcome these challenges?
Della Manna: We do everything we can to increase productivity and efficiency. We also try as aggressively as we can to expand the funding base. We try to get federal grant money to supplement state money. And most of our work on old cases is funded by federal money. If that funding were to go away, it would severely hamper our ability to work backlogged DNA cases. We also know the federal money won't be there forever, and we are trying to identify state revenue sources that could eventually take the place of that funding. We have increased the court cost fees, for example, that are earmarked for the DNA program, and have the offenders pay more. It's just a little bit, but that's the kind of step we'll take in the future.
Your program has been successful in reducing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits. How great a backlog did you have, and how did you manage to reduce it?
Della Manna: We applied a two-pronged strategy. As we identified old sexual assault cases from the 70s and 80s that needed testing, we worked on increased capacity through instrumentation and technology in each of our four laboratories to improve and enhance our infrastructure and capacity statewide. The second was that some of our staff was willing to work overtime, more than a 40-hour week. People worked evenings and weekends, and that has allowed us to reduce the backlog to the lowest point in 20 years.
What kind of training is needed for the staff?
Della Manna: In addition to the usual scientific education, it usually takes about one and a half years to get them qualified as DNA analysts under FBI standards. Once that is done, we allocate resources and time for all staff to go to training or national conferences to learn about the newest instrumentation and technology, which we may want to evaluate and implement in our state. We also allow specific time in the laboratory for staff to do literature reviews, and to look at the scientific journals and the latest research. That combination of opportunities gives them a break from regular casework and allows them to continue learning. At two of our sites, we are affiliated with graduate forensic science programs at universities, and give staff opportunities to present and publish.
What personal characteristics do your staff members need to have?
Della Manna: As we interview people to join our program, I want to know how they will fit in. We look for certain traits depending on the part of the staff they will be assigned to. They all have to be committed to the mission, which is to provide some closure for the victims of violent crime throughout the state. I tell them if you want to make where you live a better place, come and work with us. We help our citizens and many victims in other states, too, because when we get a hit, it can help a victim anywhere in the country.
Why is your work important to victims?
Della Manna: We never know when we will be a victim of a violent crime or be in a position to help victims of violent crime. It's our responsibility to conduct sound, objective, scientific testing to identify the perpetrator and stop the chain of crimes. We feel strongly that the work we do plays a pivotal role in solving crimes so that not only can victims have closure, but we are actually helping to prevent other people from becoming victims.
Can you share an example of how a particular victim was helped?
Della Manna: One recent case is an elderly lady who was assaulted in a rural community. When we identified the perpetrator and went to court on that case, she told us that from her perspective, "I don't have to look over my shoulder anymore when I leave the house." When someone is a victim of a crime, every day from that point on, they constantly fear for their safety. Once we've identified the offender, the victim doesn't have to worry every day.
In another case from the late 80s, a lady was attending graduate school at the University of Alabama; she was at home one evening, and her fianc頷as out working. Someone broke into her house and assaulted her, and for years, she had no idea who did this. She went into counseling and later became an advocate for other victims. We selected her case as deserving of having the latest DNA testing performed upon it, and we identified the perpetrator who had committed the crime when he was out of prison on a weekend pass that he shouldn't have had. Her case was closed and it brought me great satisfaction. In fact, a few months ago, I got a Christmas card from her and her husband, and that certainly meant a lot to me.
What have you learned from doing this work?
Della Manna: From a science perspective, there is no such thing as an unsolved case. If there is a DNA profile, I've learned we may search it and not find the perpetrator today. But we take comfort in knowing that as offenders are added and the database is continually searched, there is always the opportunity to identify the perpetrator. I have also learned that from a small laboratory in a city in central Alabama, we can impact victims and unsolved cases throughout this country. I keep a map here of other states where we have identified perpetrators of their unsolved cases, such as when Alabama offenders have traveled and offended in other states. We have helped close cases in 37 different states. That is very gratifying.
What advice do you have for other laboratories in dealing with backlogs?
Della Manna: Hang in there and try not to let fiscal limitations dictate whether you will work a case. Don't rule out going back to unsolved cases simply because you don't have the resources. Get to it when you can, but take the case because I believe we have an ethical and moral obligation to test any case that may benefit from the constant advances in DNA technology.
If you had one message to share with victims and their families about your work, what would it be?
Della Manna: First, I am sorry you are a victim because obviously no one chooses to have that happen. If there is anything we can do to help give you any information -- be it either about the testing process or the underlying science behind it -- we would be glad to do that. I've found that victims yearn for information about what we do, what is the process, and what specific information we have about their case. We recognize that there are people behind those test tubes. We are open to answering questions from victims and their families about the role we play. We are committed to the mission, we do not want to close the door, and we are here to offer whatever help we can.
Angelo Della Manna, MSFS, D-ABC, is the Assistant Director and the Chief of Forensic Biology and DNA at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, where he has served for 20 years.