Moms of slain Chicagoans encouraged by plan to address giant DNA backlog: ‘Something’s being done’
The Illinois State Police plans to hire 26 new forensics analysts.
Reginice McBride hasn’t rested well since her son was gunned down nearly two years ago in the shadow of the United Center.
Despite investigators recovering DNA evidence at the scene of the shooting, 36-year-old Ronald Terrel James’ Nov. 5, 2017, killing has gone unsolved. As far as McBride knows, that biological evidence still hasn’t been examined by forensic experts with the Illinois State Police. State and Chicago police would not confirm whether testing had been done.
“You can do wonders with DNA, even if you just have a little bit,” said McBride, who testified at a state hearing on the need to address a massive DNA testing backlog earlier this year. “I’m very upset because I will not be able to have peace until I know who killed my son.”
There were more than 5,000 cases — including 658 unsolved homicides — awaiting DNA testing at state crime labs, according to information from the Senate hearing provided by Reena Tandon, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park. Tandon said it typically takes about a year for DNA evidence to be processed.
Looking to address the backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis, the agency is now looking to hire 26 new analysts, said Illinois State Police Lt. Joseph Hutchens. Ten of those will be assigned to the biology section “to help increase the DNA testing turnaround time,” he said, and “get victims the justice they deserve.” The other hires will be in the drug chemistry, latent prints and toxicology sections.
But help won’t come quickly: Hutchins said ISP won’t get a boost from the hiring surge until training is completed in roughly 18 months to two years.
“Once the new hires are done with training and at their respective labs, we expect to see a positive effect in the turnaround time for assignments,” said Hutchins, adding that the analysts will be paid for by general revenue requested as part of ISP’s annual budget.
According to Tandon, the budget for fiscal year 2020 includes more than $92 million for ISP’s forensic services division.
Hutchins added that 24 others who are currently being trained in the biology, toxicology, firearms and latent prints sections are set to be finished by next year. While the agency hopes to get back to its previous staffing level of 320 analysts, similar rounds of hiring over the next two years will be needed to reach that goal.
Rapid DNA coming?
What’s more, a state resolution passed unanimously in both chambers earlier this year requires ISP to submit a report by Sept. 30 detailing how the state will join a pilot program related to the federal Rapid DNA Act of 2017. That act already enables police departments in some states to connect to the FBI’s national database using Rapid DNA machines that can process DNA within two hours.
The agency’s report must also provide plans to permanently bring Rapid DNA technology to Illinois, according to the resolution’s sponsor, state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills.
“I think the [hiring surge is] positive, but I do believe the long-term answer is quickly bringing rapid DNA technology to Illinois,” McSweeney said. “It’s obvious that steps need to be taken to address this problem.”
Carmia Tang, who also spoke at the recent Senate hearing, is still searching for answers about the killing of her son, 20-year-old son Jeremy Alexander Tang. While Carmia Tang said investigators have since analyzed DNA from the scene of her son’s shooting, which happened on the Far South Side two months before James was slain, Chicago police said no arrests have been made.
“I don’t believe that if I didn’t push the way I did, I don’t think my son’s DNA would be back,” Carmia Tang said. “Our cases were just being thrown to the back burner.”
Nevertheless, Carmia Tang said she’s happy that steps are now being taken to address the backlog, and potentially help bring other families some closure.
“Something’s being done, and I’m happy, because at first nothing was being done,” she said.