WAFF 48 Investigates: New help for forensic backlog - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF 48 Investigates: New help for forensic backlog

$1.5 million has been added to the budget for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. $1.5 million has been added to the budget for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.

Workers at Crisis Services of North Alabama acknowledged talking traumatized assault victims through the clinical business of providing evidence for a state rape kit can be a delicate process.

"We're going to take their clothing and we're going to bag it.  We'll take their undergarments.  Nobody wants to be de-robed from head to toe and checked from head to toe.  It's very personal and it can be scary," said Krista Watson, a forensic nurse administrative assistant, who added that there is always an advocate present to comfort victims, along with the nurse collecting the evidence to be sent to state crime labs.

Officials at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences said they hope to get rape kits turned around quickly, but added that lean budgets and a heavy backlog of analyses can result in long delays for some types of evidence waiting to be processed, particularly drug analyses. 

Those holdups can complicate prosecutions as evidence sits on the shelf awaiting attention.  

"Any time there is a delay, and we are seeing some delays, that does have an impact on the prosecution of cases," said Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson, "because witnesses move or, for whatever reason, we're not able to locate them if we need to locate them."

Alabama has become a national leader in collecting a vast library of DNA samples from more than 300,000 known offenders, said Angelo Della manna, Chief of Forensic Biology at the Department of Forensic Sciences. 

But he added that the department was staggered by a sharp dropoff in tax revenues coupled with a spike in crime during the 2008 recession "which forced us to close three laboratories and reduce our staff 15 percent. Well, when that occurs, coupled with an increase in crime. That, unfortunately results in a pretty significant increase in the backlog of forensic cases awaiting testing."

The Department received unusual relief from the Alabama state legislature in its 2014 session, just concluded last week.  While most state departments saw no additional funding added to their budgets, the legislature, at the urging of Governor Robert Bentley and Decatur Senator Arthur Orr, added $1.5 million to the budget for the Department of Forensic Sciences.

"I think they were reaching a breaking point," said Orr.  "We need to support the district attorneys and get the cases prosecuted."

Della Manna estimated that at its most severe level in 2011, the department had a backlog of some 2500 rape kits, which could result in a delay of up to 2 years as prosecutors and victims waited for the evidence to bring their cases to trial. 

Advocates say the delays can be especially difficult when the victims are children.  "If you're talking about someone who's seven or eight years old, all they really understand is that ‘so-and-so' hasn't been arrested," said Chris Newlin, Executive Director of the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville.  "They don't necessarily have all the bigger understanding of how there needs to be appropriate analysis done and about the backlogs.  It's unfortunate."  

Newlin said protracted postponements in justice turn already traumatic family ordeals into lengthy struggles and make it harder for victims to move on.

"We would never accept this kind of delays in other situations," he said.  "If it was in a medical field, say,  'I know you need to have that procedure done but we're going to have to put you on the calendar. It's going to be nine months from now.'    We might take nine days.  But nine months?    We would say 'no way.'  'That's ridiculous.'"

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the problem is finances.  "We have a great forensics department in Alabama but the resources are not what they should be," he said.  "We're asking law enforcement to operate on less than a shoestring across the board whether it's prosecutors, whether it's' the court system and the judges who conduct the trials, to the men and women on the street keeping us safe." 

Della Manna said the Department of Forensic Sciences has had considerable success in obtaining supplemental funding from the U.S. Justice Department and that has speeded up the process of handling rape kits in particular to the point that most are now processed within 90 days.  But other cases still wait on the shelves, including some 35,000 chemical analyses still uncompleted from drug cases.  

"If we didn't receive another case today," he said, "it would take the better part of a year to a year and a half to, just to catch up on the drug chemistry backlog."

Della Manna said the additional aid approved by the state was a welcome step in the right direction which could bring new investments in technology to streamline and hasten the processing of chemical evidence in particular.  

Prosecutors said speeding up the process is more than just a matter of closure for victims but a real problem in heading off new crimes.

"Quite often someone goes out, commits a crime," said Anderson, "whether it's rape or selling drugs illegally and we send the evidence off to forensics and it's a year or two before we get it back, and that person has committed another crime.  Well, now we're waiting on two test results to come back.  So there's a domino effect to the delays."

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