Scientist Lanisha Gittens uses a microscope as she works on evidence in the serology lab at the GBI crime laboratory in late 2015. KENT D. JOHNSON/ kdjohnson@ajc.com

Crime lab backlog swells as opioid epidemic grows

The ongoing opioid epidemic and a surge in police-involved shootings are fueling a growing backlog at Georgia’s crime labs, forcing some law enforcement officials to wait more than a year for forensic evidence that may make or break a case, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Division of Forensic Sciences has almost 93,000 pieces of evidence waiting to be examined — drugs, firearms, DNA and fingerprints — leaving the state’s scientists to triage the workload. At the front of the line: cases coming to trial or forensic loose ends which must be tied up so criminal charges can be filed. Anything else? You’ll be waiting awhile.

“It’s not reached the crisis … but it’s building,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan told The AJC.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan (KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC file)
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

The situation isn’t as dire as it was 20 years ago, when prosecutors were forced to drop cases because of lab delays, said LaGrange police Chief Lou Dekmar, who is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But Dekmar, who served on the 1998 commission created to fix the lab problems, called the new delays serious.

“We have some cases that have been pending more than a year,” he said.

A case is classified as backlogged if at least 30 days have elapsed since it arrived in the lab. With just a week left in the current fiscal year, 32,080 cases meet that definition, according to the GBI. That’s almost 7 1/2 times what it was in fiscal year 2014, which was 4,373. And currently another 60,779 cases have not yet been assigned, the GBI said.

“They are just overwhelmed with cases,” said Pete Skandalakis, a former district attorney and now executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

Georgia crime lab director Kathy Lee said the huge volume of evidence has meant that managers must say “no” more often to requests for additional forensic testing and also to negotiate new dates to have cases completed.

“There are just so many priorities you can assign to a person,” Lee said.

The Rise of Painkillers

It’s no coincidence that the lab backlog has grown in tandem with the skyrocketing use of opioids in Georgia and elsewhere.

At Georgia labs, drugs account for the largest portion of the incomplete lab work, with 16,458 samples backlogged and 34,447 not yet assigned.

Scientist Lanisha Gittens uses a microscope as she works on evidence in the serology lab at the GBI crime laboratory in 2015. KENT D. JOHNSON/ kdjohnson@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jean Stover, executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, said the opioid crisis and increasing use of designer drugs, with constantly changing chemical make ups, are a challenge.

“That’s a never-ending battle,” Stover said.

Last year, for instance, a mass overdose in middle Georgia that left four dead was blamed on a new strain of synthetic fentanyl, which lab scientists identified.

Georgia is among the top 11 states with the most opioid overdose deaths with 55 Georgia counties having an overdose rate of 13.3 per 100,000 people that is higher than the national average, according to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office.

The GBI operates seven labs around the state but most are not “full service” operations. Only the main lab located in Decatur has scientists trained in all areas — chemistry, firearms, DNA, fingerprints, toxicology, trace evidence, to name a few. It has 164 scientists, 32 of whom are in training, and 62 lab technicians.

Police Shootings

This year has also seen a rise in officer-involved shootings in Georgia, which are testing the crime labs’ capacity.

So far in 2018, there have been 49 officer-involved shootings, which is outpacing last year when there were a total of 88. At the same time, the analyses required for those cases increased 375 percent from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017.

As police shootings have attracted more attention, they have also created more work for forensic scientists, experts said.

July 28, 2016 DECATUR Rape kits are shown in the secure vault at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Thursday, July 28, 2016. After state law changed July 1 to require hospitals and law enforcement agencies to account for rape kits they still had, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation got a stunning call from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. There were 205 rape kits from examinations of children at its three hospitals since 2006 that had never been picked up by law enforcement and taken to the state Crime Lab to be analyzed. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Officer involved shootings, which must be investigated by the GBI, are more complicated, especially with the “scrutiny they receive in the legal community (and) also in the public. They have to be done with no short cuts,” Keenan said.

“It’s not just looking at the bullets,” he continued. “We cannot have a question about evidence.”

DNA and fiber evidence are often in play and “it’s not just one or two firearms or bullets — it’s a lot,” crime lab director Kathy Lee said. “One analyst in the firearms area could potentially spend the entire month on one officer-involved case.”

“It goes in waves”

The increasing backlog is not unique to Georgia.

Alabama, for instance, is experiencing a backlog in testing drug cases, as is Ohio. The National Institute of Justice has reported backlogs across the nation in testing DNA evidence.

Staffing and training obstacles are, in part, to blame for delays. Laws that set time lines for completing analysis so cases can proceed are also factors, Stover said.

“It goes in waves,” she said. “They may have an issue and money’s put in (and) they get the staffing, they get the instrumentation, maybe they get the buildings. Then something new comes up.”

And then the backlog builds again.

Law enforcement officials have long been able to file requests to expedite results — effectively cutting to the front of the line — if they need lab results to file charges or for trial. But even that will only get you so far.

Skandalakis said if you request an expedited drug test you may still have “300 expedited cases ahead of you.”

“Delay is a major problem,” agreed George Christian, the district attorney for the Mountain Judicial Circuit which uses the lab in Cleveland, Ga.“We were told that they are working to resolve the problem, but a shortage in personnel and the increase in the volume of submissions makes it difficult to catch up.

“We try not to make expedited request because that impacts all circuits who use the Cleveland lab,” he said,

According to the GBI, between June 11 and June 15 there were requests to expedite testing on 306 pieces of evidence. Most of the requests involved evidence that needed to be tested in cases about to come to trial. Nine were needed for investigations of officer-involved shootings.

“Bottleneck of Justice”

The lab delays echo the earlier problems in the state, which reached a peak in 1998.

As with that crisis, personnel and equipment aren’t keeping up. It takes time to train a scientist, sometimes as long as two years, and then they are recruited by higher paying labs that have smaller case loads, like the Army’s crime lab in Forest Park.

Also as in the previous crisis, the lab will be asking the state Legislature for money to hire more scientists and to buy more equipment.

In the late 1990s district attorneys were dropping cases because they couldn’t get timely analyses of crime scene evidence. A GBI official at the time said the lab had become the “bottleneck of justice.”

That led to a 1998 study by a panel of experts, police, prosecutors and judges that recommended that Georgia spend $50 million for new labs, updated equipment and about 200 additional people. The crime lab got little more than half that.

But since then a new lab and morgue opened at the GBI’s headquarters in Decatur. New facilities were built to replace labs in Macon, Cleveland, Columbus and Augusta and soon an expansion of the Savannah lab will be completed thought it will take time to equip and staff that facility.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm,” Keenan said about the increasing backlog. “The lab has received substantial resources since 2009. New scientists. Equipment. New labs. But then the storm kicks in. The cases they are working now … are more complicated than before, requiring additional time on testing.”

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