BLOOMINGTON — When authorities on Sept. 23 confirmed that remains found in the Illinois River Sept. 4 were those of Jelani Day, social media exploded with comments about why the identification took so long. The Illinois State University student had been missing for about a month.
Almost two weeks after the body was discovered, the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office told The Pantagraph they were still waiting on DNA test results from the Illinois State Police crime labs. Within the next week, the Day family would learn the news that Jelani was gone.
Jelani's case has garnered international attention and searches for clues, underscoring the disparity in media coverage of white people reported missing versus people of color. And, it has illuminated the grief that families like Day’s have felt as a result of the DNA test backlog.
It's a familiar problem. Illinois has worked for decades to reform the system, which has left behind families of murder victims and survivors of sexual assault. Various efforts have been launched to improve the lag, and tens of millions in state funding have been pumped in to improve lab infrastructure and staffing.
Still, delays remain. Online data from the Illinois State Police shows a backlog of 3,745 DNA cases at the end of August. The average turnaround time for biological assignments in that month was 81 days.
For Day's family members and friends, these numbers count up to a frustrating reality. Day's mother, Carmen Bolden Day, has been outspoken on how police efforts to locate her son were lacking.
During an ISU memorial event Thursday, Bolden Day asked for the Bloomington police, LaSalle police, Peru police and the LaSalle County sheriff's departments to "do your job" and find out what happened to Jelani. She then called for ISP and the FBI to ensure that would happen.
20 days to identify him? That’s awful. His poor mom 💔— TeriKate (@terikateB) September 23, 2021
The FBI previously told The Pantagraph that its Behavioral Analysis Unit is assisting the investigation. The agency has not divulged further details about its involvement.
Bolden Day told CNN Sept. 23 that she hadn’t heard from the LaSalle County coroner since the day her son’s body was found. The mother said in that news report that “there is no effort. There is no push” to find her son.
‘Nobody deserves this pain’
Just shameful 20 days, do better!— Mae (@mae_jerseylove) September 23, 2021
Jelani Day was reported missing Aug. 25 after he missed classes at ISU and his family stopped hearing from him — which was unusual, his mother has said.
On Sept. 4, the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office and the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office were dispatched to the Illinois River in Peru, where a body was found on the south bank. Bloomington Police were also called to the scene.
An autopsy was performed the next day. Eighteen days later, on Sept. 23, Bloomington Police announced during a press conference that the body had been confirmed as Day’s.
19 Days…456 Hours…27,360 Minutes EVERY DAY, MINUTE, and HOUR COUNTED! They FAILED Jelani Day and they FAILED his family! Nobody deserves this type of pain 😔— Presh (@PYT_NamedPresh) September 24, 2021
LaSalle County Coroner Richard Ploch told The Pantagraph that a sample from a bone collected during the autopsy was sent in that same day for DNA analysis.
“The DNA testing was requested to be expedited from the very beginning,” he said.
Bloomington police Officer John Fermon said at the press conference that there were “issues” with DNA testing. He was not able to elaborate what on those issues were for The Pantagraph.
When asked if the DNA backlog caused a delay, ISP's Chief Public Information Officer Beth Hundsdorfer said in a statement that the Division of Forensic Services cannot comment on open cases and declined an interview request. The statement added that "all cases are a priority."
Several people said following Day's identification that the wait was too long.
Anntionetta Rountree, co-chair of the Bloomington-Normal Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus, told The Pantagraph that when it comes to people of color, "we always take the back."
"We are never prioritized," Rountree said. "When it’s a case that's important to them, we know it's important to them because they get the job done.
"When it’s a person of color, we always have to wait.
It’s an agony shared by many seeking justice, as the system is dependent on forensic DNA analysis.
In March 2019, the Chicago Tribune reported there was a backlog of 5,000 DNA tests throughout the state — including 658 homicides unsolved after one year. ISP indicated at the time that measurable improvements in DNA testing may not be seen for up to two years.
Now, in 2021, the progress is tangible. According to data provided by ISP Sgt. Joey Watson, 8,766 DNA assignments were still pending in June 2019. That number decreased to 6,093 by June 2020. This past June, it was 3,670 — that’s less than half of what it was two years ago.
As of June, the average turnaround time for DNA tests done by ISP was 84 days.
Labs across Illinois are tasked with a tall order: 16,465 DNA assignments were received from June 2020 to June 2021. That was 2,122 more assignments from the year before.
But what’s to blame for the backlog?
ISP said in a summer 2020 press release that “long-term underinvestment in Illinois labs combined with a lack of access to the latest technology solutions compounded the problem.”
Pantagraph journalists spent last week in Danville speaking to those who knew Day, and they described him as big-hearted, hard-working and on a path to success.
These backlogs are nothing new to Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor and chairperson for the Department of Science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He said he’s been following the issue in multiple states for several years now.
“DNA has become the most popular and most important forensic test for human identification,” he told The Pantagraph.
In Day’s case, getting a specimen to the lab was not simple. Kobilinsky explained that using a bone sample “is a whole elaborate procedure” where the material has to be cut out and pulverized.
He also said the workload for forensic scientists is pretty high, especially in big jurisdictions.
“In the old days, it was only murder, rape and violent crimes they tested DNA,” he said.
“Now, it’s everything: it's burglaries, lesser crimes, and all kinds of misdemeanor-type events.
"The big thing now is gun crimes.”
Kobilinsky said the demand for DNA tests is so great that “of course there’s going to be a backlog.”
Watson said cases submitted to ISP are triaged to find items for analysis that will provide the strongest evidence for an investigation.
He also explained that cases are prioritized, and they consider whether it’s a violent crime, has an impending court date, and if the agency asked for a “rush” analysis for investigative need.
In 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker created a task force to identify and recommend improvements to the system, and increase its transparency.
Statistics on forensics productivity are now posted monthly to ISP’s website, and Watson said they have added large-scale robotics at three of their biggest labs to help reduce the backlog.
Watson said 15 forensic scientist trainees have been hired since 2018, with 11 expected to finish their training by early next year.
The trooper added two dozen positions with the Forensic Services division were recently posted, including 16 in chemistry, six in firearms and two in toxicology. Additional openings are expected in firearms and biology before the end of this year, Watson said.
In addition, Watson said a Lean Six Sigma study — which searches for inefficiencies — found that technicians who prepare evidence for forensic sciences are “underutilized.” Starting late last year, those technicians began training on additional tasks to help bring down the backlog, he said.
Additionally, Joliet has been chosen for a new forensics lab, with the design still in progress, Watson said.
“Once complete, the new Joliet facility will most certainly aid the ISP in the delivery of state-of-the-art forensic services to the criminal justice system,” Watson said.
‘Jelani didn’t deserve this’
But that's too late in the case of Day.
Many questions remain about what happened to the young, aspiring doctor. Coroner Ploch's office told The Pantagraph on Friday that further updates were not available on the investigation, as toxicology reports are not complete.
His office also told The Pantagraph that toxicology reports normally take four to six weeks to return. Saturday marked the fifth week since Day's body was found.
Online data stated 579 toxicology tasks are still pending in state forensics labs.
To Kobilinsky, the simple answer to clearing the backlog is getting a bigger and better budget for forensics.
“Certain policies will help, but ultimately you need the personnel, you need the high-throughput (robotics) equipment, you need lab space, you need supplies," he said.
“And, it comes down to training and education, and it comes down to money.”
Fermon said he wasn’t aware of any cases handled by Bloomington Police where backlogs were critical or vital, “because ISP is very good at communication in regards to expediting certain tests and testing that are time sensitive.”
But for Bolden Day, she felt she lacked assistance from authorities. She’s said that all the legwork in finding her son was done by friends and strangers who didn’t even know Jelani.
“My son didn’t get any type of help,” the mother told CNN. “He didn’t deserve this.”
Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison
Why it take so long to identify Jelani Day’s body. The family been searching and it took them 19 days to identify his body. C’mon bruh!!!— LANDO (@LandoSoReal) September 23, 2021