TAYLORSVILLE — Getting DNA test results back in a criminal case can take months or even years.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is pushing legislation to speed up the process to identify perpetrators or exonerate innocent people.
"It takes years sometimes to develop DNA, and that's ridiculous," Hatch said. "We want to be able to get it down to where it takes just a few days."
Hatch, Elizabeth Smart, Ed Smart and U.S. Attorney John Huber toured the Utah Department of Public Safety crime lab Thursday. The lab analyzes DNA, drugs, guns and other evidence for state and federal court cases.
Hatch's bill, which has passed the Senate, would create a system allowing law enforcement to use rapid DNA technology to help reduce evidence backlogs. Unlike traditional DNA analysis, rapid DNA can produce results in about 90 minutes.
The proposal would allow samples collected in the field to be connected to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national database that houses DNA profiles from federal, state and local forensic laboratories.
Under current law, police agencies can only use results from accredited labs, rather than rapid DNA analysis, to search for matches in the FBI database.
It takes the Utah crime lab about two months to process a DNA sample, said Pilar Shortsleeve, chief forensic scientist.
The state crime lab has been waiting for the new technology, Shortsleeve said.
"We're just looking for the right rules and the way to implement that within the state of Utah," she said.
Shortsleeve said rapid DNA profiles have been tested and validated but are not appropriate in all situations.
"Some samples are difficult, and they are not samples that you want to use a rapid DNA type of setting for. Those have to be done by analysts to review the data," she said.
Stewart Gollan, executive director of the Utah Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he has concerns about the reliability of a DNA field test and that it's use could violate people's rights. He fears DNA results could be admissible in court without having gone through an accredited lab.
"We certainly don't want misidentification, because misidentification leads to wrongful conviction," he said.
Gollan said he would also be concerned that the ease and availability of rapid DNA may lead to a "slacking off" about complying with Fourth Amendment protections, and police might take samples without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Elizabeth Smart, with her young daughter and infant son in a stroller, said it would be a "comforting thought" for victims who are often scared to come forward to know that cases could be handled quickly. Many victims feel left behind once the perpetrator is caught, she said.
"The faster that we can process this DNA and the faster we can get their cases over with, I think that's probably the better for them because the attention is then off of the perpetrator and they can turn back on themselves," Smart said.
Her father, Ed Smart, said DNA plays an important role in not only identifying perpetrators but in eliminating those who are not, and in getting answers that the families are looking for.
Huber said his office uses the state crime lab as well as federal labs weekly for its cases.
"These are things that we rely on regularly more and more because it seems to me that the bar is getting higher and higher to prove a case in court beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
Hatch said people shouldn't be charged with crimes they didn't commit.
"This would exonerate a lot of people who may have been charged improperly. And yet we should be able to tell who really needs to be prosecuted and do it in a way that nobody can refute," he said.