Forensic tests

Rena Motes-Garmon, a forensic science specialist, describes the packaging and substance for Anniston police officer Nathan Jackson to record before the suspected drug sample is tested at the Center for Applied Forensics on Friday, Jan. 15, 2015. 

Kirsten Fiscus / The Anniston Star

The Alabama Department of Forensic Science, swamped with thousands of test requests for cases all across the state, has left law enforcement and prosecutors with a year’s wait before they see results.

The almost 40,000-case backlog keeps prosecutors from moving cases forward in trial, Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said Friday by phone. The long wait can sometimes delay police from building a case against a potential suspect, Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said.

“There is no doubt the Department of Forensic Science needs more funding,” McVeigh said of the $797,555 budget cut the department had for the 2016 fiscal year. “But we all need more funding.”

The department is almost entirely funded by the state’s general fund, but it also collects fees from suspects who plead in drug cases, McVeigh said.

“The majority of that backlog is drug cases,” he said.

Efforts to reach a spokesperson for the Department of Forensic Science were not successful.

One way police and prosecutors have combatted the backlog is with the TruNArc, a device that tests suspected drugs immediately, Denham said.

“It works like what we use to check for someone’s blood alcohol content,” he said. “It’s just not admissible in court yet.”

Even though the results cannot stand in court yet, police and prosecutors have been able to secure guilty pleas just with the results, senior forensic scientist Mark Hopwood said.

“It’s a handy little tool,” he said. “I haven’t checked the numbers recently, but with the TruNarc results we were getting guilty pleas on 35 percent to 40 percent.”

Hopwood, formerly the director of the closed state forensics lab at McClellan, operates the Center for Applied Forensics at Jacksonville State University.

“The bones of our operation is assisting local police departments with crime scene work,” he said.

Losing the McClellan lab in 2011 increased wait times for lab results significantly, McVeigh said.

“When I first started we’d wait about six months for lab reports,” he said. “Now it takes a minimum of a year or more.”

With a small budget, the Center for Applied Forensics can’t be a full lab, like McClellan was, Hopwood said.

“That takes money and personnel,” he said. “It goes above what we are capable of doing right now.”  

Without a local lab, McVeigh and Denham have to rely on state-run labs, McVeigh said. Even with technology like the TruNarc, the backlog isn’t being cut back fast enough.

“We are using this technology, getting guilty pleas, and the department still runs the tests, even when we inform them of a guilty plea,” McVeigh said. “We’ve fixed part of our problem, but they haven’t fixed theirs. It is just mind boggling.”

The TruNarc has been a reliable tool for Anniston officers, Denham said, but samples are still sent to Hoover for forensic testing.

“I’ve seen results come back on cases that are 18 months old,” he said.

Sometimes prosecutors will get lucky and get results on samples sooner than expected, but continue to wait on samples sent a year ago, McVeigh said.

“There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for which cases they work first,” he said. “I might get results from a case this year, but still not have results for a case when the backlog was at its worst about two years ago.”

Not only is the department’s backlog delaying cases in court, it also delays police in identifying suspects in some cases.

“Most of the time we have a suspect on our radar, but occasionally we will have a cold hit on a sample,” he said.

Before Denham became chief, he worked in the Anniston Police Department’s crime lab.

“I’ve seen results come back years later that have confirmed what we already knew, and in at least one instance I can recall we had results come back on a burglary we didn’t have any suspects for,” he said. “However, by the time we got those results for that case, the statute of limitations had passed for a burglary, about three years.”  

​Staff writer Kirsten Fiscus: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @kfiscus_star.