WAFF 48 Investigates: Forensic evidence delays

Published: Jul. 18, 2013 at 2:14 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2013 at 1:00 AM CDT
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There are 181 chemists and examiners working thousands of cases.
There are 181 chemists and examiners working thousands of cases.

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Crime victims in Alabama are waiting years to see the accused face a judge and jury. Murders, sex crimes, even minor drug charges are in limbo and it all comes down to money.

State budget cuts have created a massive backlog of cases at forensic labs across the state.

In 2011, 91-year-old Doris Richardson was found dead in her Huntsville home on Bide-A-Wee Drive. It didn't take long for police to arrest and charge John Clayton Owens, accused of robbing and killing her.

Investigators sent the evidence to the lab, but an indictment didn't come until just this past May 2013, because the forensics report wasn't ready yet.

Statewide, the department of forensics has about 1,100 DNA cases pending. About 2,000 toxicology cases and 30,000 drug cases are just waiting for analysis. There are 181 chemists and medical examiners in only eight labs working them.

According to Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Michael Sparks, the load got that heavy due to "a funding issue."

In 2009, the DFS had a budget of $14.3 million with 223 employees. However, a year later, massive cuts in the state took the budget down to $8.5 million, a 40% reduction in funding. It forced three labs to close and there's fewer employees to work cases.

"In '09, I had between 35 and 40 drug chemists and I now have 17," said Sparks.

Marshall County Drug Prosecutor, Chris Abel sees his pile grow daily. He's waiting on lab results for 542 of the 1,300 drug cases before him.

"If we could get those results back quicker, then we could get some justice quicker," added Abel.

Defense Attorney Brian Clark used to be able to tell his clients to prepare for court in about six to 12 months, but now, "from the time that they get arrested and the drugs get sent off, you are looking at two years before you get something to trial."

That works in his clients benefit because witnesses could move away, memories could fade and there's a lot more time to prepare for trial.

"Unfortunately time is on the defense side. We would rather seek swift justice. Somebody that does something on January 1, 2011 but they are not punished until sometime late 2012 the deterrence effect is worn off," said Abel.

The delay doesn't end there, when it comes to processing bodies for an autopsy, the Huntsville lab which serves 22 counties on death investigations is short one medical examiner.

The solution, they've been sending bodies to Montgomery.

"The bodies don't have to wait, I have more doctors in Montgomery so we are transporting the ones that are the overflow to Montgomery so we can turn those around quicker," said Sparks.

Death investigations and sexual assault cases are given priority but there's a lag there too. So what's the solution?

"We know the problems related to our forensics lab and we are going to try to address that," said Governor Bentley.

However, if the main reason for the backlog is funding from the state, it may come down to asking citizens to pay higher taxes.

"We've not had to raise taxes since I've been governor and we're not planning on raising taxes but we are doing everything we can to have adequate money by making things more efficient and making things work better," added Governor Bentley.

In the meantime, Director Sparks is looking at every way to speed up the process by using robotics and changing shifts for staff to keep them and the equipment running around the clock. Also, utilizing grant money to provide training for scientists.

"We didn't get 30,000 cases behind overnight and we are not going to get caught up 30,000 overnight either but there is a plan in place and we are moving forward," said Sparks.

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