DNA test becomes campaign fodder: Opponents berate Lautenschlager over crime lab backlog
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Aug. 18--Challengers in the race for attorney general Thursday latched onto a news story about a State Crime Laboratory backlog to flog incumbent Peg Lautenschlager, charging her with a leadership failure with possibly deadly results.
Republicans Paul Bucher and J.B. Van Hollen and Democrat Kathleen Falk harshly criticized Lautenschlager, also a Democrat, saying the months-long delay in testing DNA of a rape suspect may have led to the murder of state Justice Department agent John "Jay" Balchunas during a foiled Milwaukee gas station robbery in October 2004.
Lautenschlager defended her management of the crime lab during a time of a rapidly increasing caseload and criticized her opponents for politicizing Balchunas' death.
One of his two killers, Anthony Bolden, eventually was linked through DNA to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl three months before the agent was shot, the Journal Sentinel reported Thursday.
But DNA taken from the girl in July 2004 wasn't matched to Bolden's sample from a 2003 conviction for seven months, raising the possibility that if it had been made sooner, Bolden might have been locked up in the rape case before Balchunas was killed.
Bucher, the Waukesha County district attorney, raised the stakes with a radio ad to air starting Monday in which the parents of the assault victim criticize the situation. In an accompanying press release, Bucher said he and the victim's family both want an apology.
In an interview, the victim's parents said Lautenschlager inadequately addressed problems with the case and responded to a detailed letter of complaint with only a brief message. The victim's mother, whose name is being withheld to protect the victim's identity, said that lack of follow-up was a main reason the family is against Lautenschlager.
"(We) are not Republican or Democrat, we're just trying to get people to listen to our story," the mother said. "It's not that we think that (Bucher) is the best -- he might be -- but we're trying to stay neutral."
Backlog is top concern
In separate appearances with Journal Sentinel editors and reporters Thursday, Bucher and Van Hollen, a former U.S. attorney, called for shifting priorities to beef up the crime lab staff and reduce the backlog, an issue that has surfaced frequently in attorney general races.
The number of DNA cases brought to the lab during Lautenschlager's tenure from 2003 to 2005 has escalated, and the backlog has more than doubled, according to state Department of Justice statistics.
The lab received 4,382 DNA cases in that time, compared with 3,351 from 2000 to 2002, when Gov. Jim Doyle was attorney general.
Van Hollen, in a prepared statement, said the backlog "is not only jeopardizing prosecutions, it is costing lives. . . . If Peg Lautenschlager did her job, perhaps a good cop would still be alive today."
Van Hollen later said he wasn't blaming Lautenschlager for Balchunas' death. He did say there was "a reasonable probability that this wouldn't have happened" had the DNA sample been tested sooner.
Bucher called for imposing bigger fees on convicted criminals to pay for 10 more crime lab workers. He suggested raising the current $8 fee to $50, though he acknowledged many defendants wouldn't pay.
Van Hollen said he could find money in the Justice Department budget to expand the crime lab staff. He called Bucher's proposal "disingenuous."
Falk, the Dane County executive, said the Balchunas case was a "tragic consequence" of Lautenschlager's failure to reduce delays in processing crime lab evidence.
"It's not an excuse for a failure to act, it's a reason you need to act," Falk said of the increasing lab traffic.
Falk said that if she's elected, getting rid of the backlog would be her first priority.
Lautenschlager criticized her opponents for attempting to make political hay from the Balchunas murder, saying their statements "cross the line into the unthinkable and are utterly reprehensible."
Dan Balchunas said he was displeased to hear his brother's slaying had become a hot political topic.
"I don't agree with anyone trying to use this to their advantage," Balchunas said.
Lautenschlager also said what happened in 2004 is exactly what her opponents have called for -- hiring private labs to help with DNA tests. She said she is preparing a budget for 2007-'09 that would include at least 10 more crime lab analysts.
Under the crime lab's priority system, DNA files judged to have need for immediate action -- such as those involved in pending court cases or needed to get a known suspect off the street -- are handled in-house and as soon as possible, said Michael Bauer, legal services administrator for the Justice Department.
Cases such as Bolden's, where the suspect is unknown, or non-violent crimes get lower priority, he said.
The DNA from the sexual assault eventually linked to Bolden was sent to a Texas lab in summer 2004, along with about 300 other cases in which no suspect had been identified. All came back Nov. 23, Bauer said.
Backlogs aren't unique to Wisconsin.
Bill Marbaker, president-elect of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, called Balchunas' killing "every crime lab's worst nightmare," with several-month backlogs the national norm, including in the crime lab where he works, for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
"We're praying to God that we don't have Jack the Ripper on the shelf ourselves," he said.
Copyright (c) 2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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