Utah crime lab: Evidence, frustration piling up
Ideally, Jay Henry and his staff at the State Crime Lab would take just three weeks to analyze the DNA, ballistics and fingerprint evidence that helps put criminals behind bars or exonerates the innocent.
Instead, budget cuts between 2008 and 2010 reduced nearly 30 percent of the lab's funds. That, paired with a steadily increasing caseload, has pushed expected average completion times to nearly 80 days for crimes that aren't given the priority of a violent felony.
Henry said the lab handles requests from 140 agencies around Utah and takes on 15 to 20 new cases per week, piling on existing cases and leaving the staff of six under Henry frustrated.
"Any of the cases that are submitted to the laboratory, they do get completed," Henry, the director of the lab in the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services, said. "But, it's the amount of time it takes to get a case out that is our biggest challenge."
For state prosecutors, stalled results can be devastating while trying to build a case. Excessive lab delays can cause valuable evidence to be excluded from trial or force judges to continue trials, allowing the suspect to be released until a new round of trials is scheduled.
"That would be fatal to an identity case where you are relying on the DNA," said Chad Grunander, deputy Utah County attorney.
Grunander said the lab will get the results quickly if the case is a pressing matter, but said he has noticed a lag in evidence for some of his prosecutions. He highlighted the Ramon Somoza case from last year, when delayed lab results pushed introduction of DNA evidence to the limit. Somoza was convicted in September 2011 on three felony counts, including first-degree murder.
"We have experienced some backlog for sure," Grunander said. "I think that there is no doubt they are understaffed up there."
One solution may be outsourcing some analysis to privately operated labs, which the state already does to collect saliva samples of convicted offenders, Henry said.
Grunander said he has approached an independent lab to analyze a weapon used in a violent rape and attempted murder case. However, he said it's cost-prohibitive to rely on those labs except in rare instances.
"Of course, we had to spend the money to do that, and it's not cheap," Grunander said. "Whereas if we used the [state] lab, it's paid for through the state and we don't have to spend extra funds for it."
Henry said the heavy workload is only part of the delay problem, citing responsibilities of lab analysts to act as experts in court testimony and as crime-scene responders who gather DNA samples.
"All of those things just combine to eat our time up," Henry said.
Criminal defense attorneys are also feeling the effects of the congested crime lab.
James Retallick, a defense attorney practicing in Ogden, said he understands the lab must prioritize cases, but the lengthy process could leave the accused with an extended prison stay before case arguments even begin.
"When the client is stuck in jail, it becomes rather frustrating and it could rise to the level of depriving one of his constitutional rights to a speedy trial," Retallick said.
He singled out a case in which analysis of a weapon used in an aggravated assault took nearly eight months. A significant wait could force some defendants to accept plea bargains for crimes they didn't commit in order to get out from behind bars, he said.
"They may waive on a case where they may be right," Retallick said. "It might not be a controlled substance and it may test in their favor, but they'll take the deal just to get out of jail."
Henry said improving communication between lab workers, investigators and prosecutors is a quick solution, but said long-term he is hoping for instantaneous results as technology advances in the forensics field.
"You look at the cost savings that you can get with accurate facts right at the scene or right after the scene," Henry said. "That seems to be pretty invaluable to me."
Toxicology results coming back faster
While the state crime lab is backlogged, the state forensic toxicology lab is faring better. It processes evidence in 12 days on average, with 100 percent completed within 30 days, Bureau Director Gambrelli Layco said.
Layco said the lab receives around 8,000 cases every year and performs 51,000 tests, attributing the quick testing to streamlining work processes.
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