LA County Coroner's office to get new DNA lab

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed today to spend $1.6 million to upgrade the county coroner's forensic laboratory to include DNA testing capabilities.

About 18,000 deaths are reported to the Los Angeles County coroner each year, and nearly half of those fall within the department's jurisdiction, making it one of the largest coroner offices in the world, according to department officials.

In addition to using DNA to identify Jane and John Does, the department gets about 100 requests annually for other DNA testing, including paternity tests. The upgraded lab could handle those tests and could be a revenue generator within two years, according to department officials.

Officials suggested that the lab could also help manage the backlog of DNA tests for county law enforcement agencies.

The coroner's office has its own backlog of cases, highlighted in a county grand jury report released June 30.

Members of the grand jury expressed concern that the coroner's backlog might threaten the lab's accreditation. The National Association of Medical Examiners and the American Society of Crime Laboratories require that 90 percent of cases be resolved within 90 days.

The coroner is required by law to determine the circumstances, manner and cause of all violent, sudden or unusual deaths within the county, including homicides, suicides, accidental deaths and natural deaths where the person had not seen a private doctor within 20 days prior to dying.

Budget cuts have led to understaffing, but the report also said the department had trouble recruiting, given low pay relative to other agencies.

In addition to recommending more funding for the $28 million department, the grand jury also suggested that the department consider changing to a Web-based case management system, calling the software it uses "outdated.''

The vendor that developed the software in 2000 published a Web-based upgrade in 2006 and the Los Angeles County Coroner is the only client still using the older version, according to the grand jury's report. The cost of a new system was estimated at $150,000.

On a more grisly note, the report recommended that the county crematorium increase capacity to meet the coroner's needs. Unclaimed bodies may be held in storage for up to three years and the coroner sometimes has to send bodies to more expensive outside crematoriums, according to the report.

Though the grand jury recommended that the sheriff's department hire more DNA technicians to manage its backlog, it made no comment on a plan to add DNA testing to the coroner's lab.

The board voted unanimously for the expenditure for the coroner's new DNA laboratory. The other issues were not part of today's agenda.