State Crime Lab: is Backup Justice Delayed or Justice Denied?

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North Carolina legislators are gearing up for the beginning of the General Assembly’s next session. On Jan. 30, lawmakers will gather with a clean slate before them — well, relatively clean. While any bills left pending at the end of the 2012 session expired when the legislature adjourned in July, the state continues to grapple with some issues from biennium to biennium.

The state crime lab is at the top of at least one state senator’s list. The specific problem in his district is the lab’s backlog — a backlog that, critics say, has held up criminal cases for months. Law enforcement is frustrated, because they are unable to prosecute their cases; defense attorneys are frustrated, because suspects are being denied their speedy trials.

Put simply, the senator says, the western part of the state does not have the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab presence it needs. A number of factors are to blame, he explains. First, there are simply not enough analysts. Second, the number of lab tests requested by law enforcement has increased greatly. And third, a 2009 court ruling.

That court ruling allows defense attorneys to object to using lab tests alone as evidence. Defendants can require the in-person testimony of a crime lab analyst instead. The senator claims that court time for toxicology analysts was just 692 hours in 2009, as opposed to 2,368 hours in 2010 — almost a 300 percent increase. For prosecutors, the ruling posed scheduling problems: Analysts cannot be in two courtrooms at once.

Officials offered an example of the kinds of delays the senator is talking about. Haywood County prosecutors waited six months for test results in a DWI case; they then spent eight months waiting for an analyst to be available to appear in court. They ended up dropping the charges.

What can the General Assembly do? We’ll continue this in our next post.

Source: Citizen-Times, “WNC lawmaker promises action on crime lab,” Julie Ball, Dec. 13, 2012

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