WWAY INVESTIGATION: Crime lab conundrum


WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Officials at the North Carolina state crime lab say they are making progress on their turn around time for lab results, but they still have a long way to go.

It is a problem prosecutors and defense attorneys have always had to deal with and not just in the cape fear or even just in North Carolina. It is a problem the criminal justice system across the country faces.

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“It’s not just my problem,” NC State Crime Lab Director John Byrd said. “It’s everybody’s problem in the criminal justice system.”

The problem is turnover time.

“Three years ago, we had cases in here that were over 700 days which is two years, so we had cases that were over 2 years old here,” Byrd said.

That time has dropped.

“Under a year turn around for an average case,” Byrd said.

It is a problem delaying our criminal justice system.

“It not only slows cases down,” assistantn some cases, district attorney Tom Old said. “It brings to bare a huge burden on counties having to house prisoners waiting for trial.”

In some cases, Old said they only have two choices.

“One, try them just based on the visual aspects of their impairment without being able to prove the drug,” Old said. “There certainly are cases where anecdotally we’ve had to dismiss cases because we don’t have the results in a timely enough fashion.”

Criminal defense attorney Buddy Allard said sometimes that means a win for them.

“There have been plenty of times where myself and other defense lawyers like me have reaped the benefit of the state’s inability to get that blood test down,” Allard said.

Why is the system so backed up?

“A case called Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts,” Byrd said.

This June 2009 Supreme Court case set a precedent that said forensic scientists must present “live” testimony in criminal trials.

“The reason we can’t get cases done is because everybody is in the courtroom testifying,” Byrd said.

There is another underlying issue here.

“It’s always a difficulty for the criminal justice system to get funding,” Old said.

Byrd has been trying for years to find a solution.

“The attorney general went and asked for more people,” Byrd said.

In November 2015, Byrd said lawmakers approves $1,023,635 for market-based salary adjustment.

“Once that got into place we were able to stabilize hiring,” Byrd said. “Those people are in training now.”

Byrd is also pushing house bill 357 in the general assembly right now.

This bill would allow forensic scientists to submit an affidavit in district court.

“That could be a game changer,” Byrd said.

Allard has a different opinion.

“What everybody ought to be horrified about, not just criminal defense lawyers, but the general public is that that is simply an attempt by the legislature to cure a problem that they’re unwilling to cure or fix by virtue of allocating money to the problem,” Allard said.

Allard said that bill violates the constitution.

“To take that affidavit of someone who has run a lab analysis on my blood or your blood and accuse us from an evidentiary standpoint of having cocaine in our system or heroin in our system or marijuana in our system, the constitution says that person should be subject to my cross examination,” Allard said.

Allard said there is another solution to the problem.

“I think the clear answer to the problem. Anytime that you want something to run more efficiently, you take it out of the hands of the government and privatize it. There is the answer to the problem.”

Outsourcing is something that is becoming more popular. Tritech forensics opened a private Digital Forensic Services company in Southport just last month.

“We’re going to be able to handle your computers,” Digital Forensic Services Director Chuck Gilpin said. “We can handle your mobile devices and do it at a fair price in a reasonable amount of time.”

Gilpin says local law enforcement agencies are part of their target.

“I think it could obviously help,” Gilpin said. “I’m not taking anything away from the crime labs. The crime labs have their mandated duties . We’re just offering these services to help.”

Byrd wants to solve the problem another way.

“I want to get to the point where we don’t need to outsource anymore,” Byrd said.

He said he is making progress.

“January 1, 2014, we were at 52,000 cases,” Byrd said. “By bringing more people online, getting more people trained, expanding our services, we’ve been able to drop that down to 19,595 and it continues to drop.”

Even if you solve the problem of funding for salaries and employee turnover, there is still another problem Byrd says he is facing.

“Equipment budget,” Byrd said.

Byrd said they have a $13.5 million dollar equipment inventory.

“We’re averaging about $64,000 equipment budget each year,” Byrd said. “We do not have the money to maintain that equipment.”

We are back at a funding issue bringing us back to Old’s earlier comment.

“It’s always a difficulty for the criminal justice system to get funding,” Old said.

Will North Carolina ever be able to get the funding needed to fix the turnaround for the crime lab… which will speed up the judicial process?

“I’ve shared with all my stakeholders and the public at large our case stats, our turn around time, how we’re doing, how we’re making progress,” Byrd said.

While he waits, the justice system continues to move along slowly.

“For whatever reason I’m still the scapegoat and I have been for a long time,” Byrd said.

Byrd said they have come a long way, but they still have a long way to go. In regards to House Bill 357, lawmakers have asked the lab to provide a fiscal impact report to a new draft bill.

The lab is also asking for equipment and startup money for the new western lab. That new lab is expected to begin operations in 2017.