It took the Baltimore Police crime lab well over a year to link a Southeast Baltimore man to a 2012 rape because of a backlog in DNA analysis. Before officers could arrest him, police say, he attacked again.
Bernard Burton, 25, was charged last week in connection with two cases that occurred in the same area of Southeast Baltimore — one in July 2012 and one this month. Because the attacks were similar, police ordered a comparison of DNA evidence from both scenes and say they quickly found a link to Burton.
Burton had remained on the street as DNA from the first incident slogged through the system, caught in a backlog that at one point reached 1,500 cases. Though Burton is a convicted felon whose genetic information is in a state database, the case was deemed lower priority because police had no suspect.
Police said they have significantly cut down on the backlog, reducing it to about 440 cases. They also pointed out that the first case was slowed in part because the victim left the country.
"There's this sort of 'CSI' understanding that it's a six-minute process to analyze evidence," said Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman. "It's a painstaking, complicated process that our technicians go through to work through this appropriately. They work as hard and as quickly as they can."
But observers said the second incident is a stark reminder of the need for investigators to work quickly to make connections and identify suspects using genetic evidence.
"People shouldn't be needlessly victimized, but while these backlogs continue, that's what's going to continue to happen," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, chair of the science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Kobilinsky said backlogs plague crime labs across the country, particularly in cities. But the technology has become cheaper and faster, and he also believes police should use federal funds to outsource work to private labs.
Both rapes occurred in City Councilman James B. Kraft's district. He said that several months ago he watched a presentation by crime lab officials, who explained to residents that there was a shortage of lab technicians.
"When you have a limited number of people doing the work and a limited turnaround time, at some point you have to prioritize everything," Kraft said. The delay in this case, however, "is totally unacceptable."
Burton is being held without bail and does not have an attorney listed in court records. He has a felony drug record and was most recently convicted in 2010, but has not previously been accused of sexual assault.
The first attack occurred on July 17, 2012, about 10 p.m. in the 100 block of N. Rose St. A 23-year-old woman told police she had been walking in the 2400 block of E. Fairmount St. when a man grabbed her and drew a handgun, court records show.
He pulled her into an alley and stole two cellphones, an iPod and her credit card, threatening to shoot her if she gave him an incorrect PIN number, police wrote in court records. He then raped her, told her to wait for 10 minutes and fled on foot.
Police wrote in court records that they received word of a DNA match to Burton through a "routine search" of the database in January 2013. But Kowalczyk, the police spokesman, said that information is incorrect.
Kowalczyk said police did not enter the Rose Street sample into the agency's "active queue" of cases to be analyzed until May 2013, when lab workers confirmed that there was biological evidence "suitable for DNA processing," he said. In July of that year, they began to examine the sample, he said.
"Part of the delay is that there are other crimes that will bump the processing of evidence," Kowalczyk said. For instance, he said, testing evidence in a homicide may take precedence over other cases, as could a rape case in which police have identified a specific suspect and want the DNA compared.
State law requires that DNA be collected from anyone convicted of a felony as well as a number of other charges. Burton's DNA had been in the Maryland database since 2008, when he was convicted of a felony drug crime and sentenced to prison.
By late November 2013, 16 months after the Rose Street incident, police had matched the DNA to Burton, but sent it to the Maryland State Police lab for independent verification, Kowalczyk said.
A state police spokesman confirmed that the department sent a verification of the match to city police on Dec. 20, 2013.
In the time that had passed, the victim had left the country, police say. Investigators located her with the help of the U.S. State Department and, after interviewing her, concluded they should arrest Burton. Police applied for a warrant Feb. 13, records show.
A few days earlier, on Feb. 10, a woman told police she was pulled into an alley, robbed and sexually assaulted in the middle of the day. The woman, 32, told police she went into a corner store at 101 North Streeper St., and a man followed her when she left.
The man grabbed her from the side, showed a small caliber handgun and said, "What you got?" police wrote in charging documents. He pulled her into an alley behind the 2800 block of E. Fairmount Ave., where he sexually assaulted her and then told her to count to 300 as he fled.
Kowalczyk said detectives in the sex offense unit noticed similarities between the two crimes and suggested that the Fairmount Avenue evidence be tested against the Rose Street case. Burton now faces charges in both rapes.
Officials say police have been improving crime lab procedures in recent years, though a lawsuit filed by a group of crime lab employees last year shows the agency is also struggling with retention. More than 30 employees allege "salary inequities" between technicians who do DNA work and the latent print and firearms examiners, causing "problems retaining and recruiting" people to work in the lab.
"To allow this salary inequity to continue will spawn further migrations of criminalists to law enforcement agencies paying more lucrative salaries," attorneys wrote in a motion filed in September. "Without the invaluable services of the criminalists to the BPD, rogue criminals will have a heyday in Baltimore, knowing that they can commit crimes with relative impunity as the backlog of cases gets higher and higher and their cases will ultimately get dismissed for lack of prosecution."
The city has countered in legal filings that there is a larger backlog of cases involving prints and firearms, and says DNA analysts have a caseload on par with the national average.
Even if a DNA match is made, police and prosecutors do not automatically file charges. At best, law enforcement officials say, a DNA match can help prove that sexual contact took place, and investigators often will not move forward with a case without the victim's cooperation. A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2010 showed prosecutors struggle to win guilty verdicts even in cases with DNA evidence.