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April 16, 2005

Tax cuts? Or a functioning State Police Crime Lab? You decide.

So it turns out that the guy who has been arrested for the long-unsolved murder of fashion writer and Truro resident Christa Worthington has a substantial criminal record and several restraining orders against him in domestic cases.  And, because he worked for a trash hauler that serviced Worthington's residence, he knew where she lived.  He was, in other words, an obvious suspect - indeed, he was identified early on in the investigation as a "person of interest." 

The suspect, Christopher McCowen, volunteered to give police a sample of his DNA in April 2002, just three months after the murder.  Yet no sample was collected from McCowen until March 2004, nearly two years later, supposedly because of McCowen's "frequent moves."  Perhaps even more appalling is the fact that McCowen's DNA sample, once collected, was not analyzed by the State Police Crime Lab until this week - over a year later - which is what led to his arrest.  There is apparently some dispute as to whether the Crime Lab sat on the sample for 8 months or 13 months, but in either case it's way too long.

And it gets worse!  A few months ago, the police and the DA's office were so desperate for new leads in the case that they asked every male resident of Truro to supply DNA samples.  The ACLU objected, seeing it as a form of coercion, and the tactic split the community and sowed suspicion among neighbors.  Yet it now seems clear that at the very moment the authorities undertook this last-ditch measure because they couldn't think of anything else to do, the DNA sample they were looking for was sitting on a shelf in the State Police Crime Lab waiting to be analyzed. 

There are lots of lessons to be drawn from this story.  One of them, I think, is that months-long delays at the State Police Crime Lab in analyzing DNA samples from likely suspects in brutal murders should be absolutely unacceptable.  And guess what, folks?  The only way to clear the backlog is to spend more money on the Crime Lab.  And the only source of revenue available is your taxes.

This is exactly what Deval Patrick has been talking about.  It's stupid to just talk about how great tax cuts are as an abstract proposition.  We first have to agree on what we want government to do, and then we have to come up with a responsible way to pay for it.  So to Governor Romney, who yesterday attacked Patrick's position on taxes by saying that "Government will always spend what people give to it," I say this: one of things I want government to do is to solve crimes quickly.  I want you to explain to me, and to Christa Worthington's friends and family, how you will give the State Police Crime Lab the money it needs to do that while simultaneously cutting the income tax.  If you can do that, great, I'm for a tax cut.  But if not, then stop being foolish.  Everyone is for tax cuts, other things being equal.  But "other things being equal" is always the rub.

Posted by David at 12:23 PM in Massachusetts | Permalink


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» Tax cuts or solving murders? from Universal Hub
David notes it took Truro police an extra long time to crack the Christa Worthington murder because the state crime lab, which processes DNA samples, is so ludicrously backed up. He wonders how Gov. Romney can [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 16, 2005 10:13:17 PM

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Martha Coakley spoke after another breakout session. She was actually a lot better than advertised. I've heard generally poor reviews of her speaking style in the past, but I would have to disagree given what I saw on Saturday. Either she's stepping ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 18, 2005 2:20:20 PM


I would agree with the foregoing assessment up until the second to last paragraph. I completely disagree that the conclusion: "And guess what, folks? The only way to clear the backlog is to spend more money on the Crime Lab. And the only source of revenue available is your taxes," follows from the preceding analysis.

In other words, money can fix a lot of things, but it is not the antidote to incompetence and poor management. Our solution too often is to throw more money at a problem rather than fully assess the nature of the problem. I am not confident that more money would have led to an arrest any quicker in this case. I believe there were systematic failures that could have been prevented by improved standards and practices rather than spending more money.

I think as Democrats we all need to get past the knee-jerk reaction that more public spending is the de facto solution to every problem. There are plenty of failures of administration, management, and bureaucratic structure that require competence, restructuring, and procedural reforms rather than money as the fix. That is not to say additional funding is not a solution at times, but if we continue to advocate spending first and reforms second, we will miss many opportunities for improvement. Let's face facts, if money is being poorly spent to begin with, what's the point of throwing more away?

Ultimately, I would like more value for my tax dollar before I'm going to consider digging any deeper into my pocket. To be clear, I am not advocating for a tax cut at this time, but I don't want to consider any tax increase until and unless it is clearly shown that all monies currently spent are having maximum impact, and that additional money, not structural reforms, is the only solution. I think we have a long way to go to improve the results of current spending without looking for more money.

Posted by: Sean Carberry | Apr 16, 2005 1:53:15 PM

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
This was 100% incompetence. Any D.A. or ADA or state police homicide det. can move a DNA samle to the top of the list. And the dna of a man with a history of viloence against women, who is the trassman of the hiogh profile murder victim is a no brainer to get to the top of the list. Do not buy into it, and Patrick should not get suckered into buyiong into this one. There is back log and there is using backlog as a convenient excuse for blatant mismanagement and incompetence.

Posted by: The troll | Apr 16, 2005 3:27:42 PM

I think care should be taken by both David and by Sean, Troll, et al.

Both sides raise valid points, and methinks that everybody agrees that it's wiser to rid an agency of incompetence before spending more money.

Where's the incompetence here? Hard to say. Why was there a backlog? What was the DAs office and the crime lab doing to deal with the situation? Where are the procedural oversights necessary to prevent problems like this from happening again?

So, Massachusetts needs to look into the cause of the problem in this case, and figure out how to fix it -- I suspect both better management and more money will be necessary.

Posted by: stomv | Apr 16, 2005 3:38:06 PM

I appreciate everyone's comments on this, and I perhaps I spoke a tad rashly. Obviously, getting rid of incompetence, inefficiency, mismanagement, etc. should always be the first goal. And there appears to have been plenty of those problems to go around in this case. That said, my (possibly outdated) recollection from my time in state govt is that the State Police Crime Lab was indeed chronically underfunded. My own view is that one of the most promising ways of reducing crime is to take DNA samples from anyone who is arrested (just like we fingerprint them), and create a statewide (maybe ultimately nationwide) database. But it won't work if the labs don't have the personnel and the resources to run the samples as they come in.

As to Patrick: I strongly believe that he is absolutely right to try to shift the debate from "do you want a tax cut" to "what do you want your government to do." Dems will always lose the first debate, and should always win the second.

Posted by: David | Apr 16, 2005 4:25:24 PM

Crime lab backlogs are real and are a well-documented national problem. There have been numerous studies on this issue, and there are things you can do about it. Labs have been ignored and chronically underfunded. The Worthington case is high profile, but the lack of funding for crime labs has caused unneccessary suffering throughout the U.S.

I urge you to visit http://www.crimelabproject.com to learn more about what you can do to help.

Jan Burke

Posted by: Jan Burke | Apr 18, 2005 3:19:30 AM

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