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December 06, 2004
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Personnel Shortages, Low Pay Plague Crime Lab in Mississippi

Too Few Techs, Too Many Cases

By Jeremy Hudson, Jackson Clarion Ledger (Mississippi)

Personnel shortages at the Mississippi Crime Lab are limiting the agency's ability to test for DNA, latent prints and gunshot residue.

The tests are being performed only when the results are requested by courts, said Julia James, interim lab director.

With the recent loss of an employee in the trace-evidence division, which performs gunshot-residue tests, fire-debris analysis and other functions, "we are one person away from not being able to perform those analyses," she said.

Jackson Police Department detectives fingered the Crime Lab continuously in explaining why an arrest hadn't been made in the brutal August attack of 93-year-old Melcenia Bell, stabbed more than 40 times in her home. Detectives submitted to the Crime Lab bloody clothing items after the attack and didn't receive results until mid-November.

The Crime Lab can have 100 employees, but is down to 72 because of budget limitations, James said. A 1999 study showed proper staffing would be 120.

"We are hoping for the legislative support to get back to 100," James said.

Roughly a quarter of the Crime lab's employees have left since 2001, said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Fortenberry, whose agency oversees the Crime Lab. Many have left to work for private laboratories that offer higher pay, he said. Starting pay for entry-level analysts at the Crime Lab is $26,500, while the average pay for the same position in surrounding states is about $35,000, James said.

Fortenberry is asking lawmakers in the 2006 budget for a $1.3 million increase in funding from last year. Of that total increase, $953,626 would go toward salaries. The Crime Lab was allocated $5.9 million last year.

"I think we have lost sight of the public safety issue in our society," Fortenberry said. "It is the original purpose of government. That is why I challenged the legislators at the budget hearing to fund public safety first. Then we could start making plans to develop a more aggressive, better-staffed Crime Lab."

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said that while he hopes financial cuts won't affect the Crime Lab's staffing, the state's financial outlook is bleak.

"I hope they get an increase (in funds), that would be top on my list," he said. "I think we need more staff, but Lord knows where we will come up with the money. ... There's not an agency or program we have that's fully funded."

DPS hopes to avoid repeating a scenario seen in May 2003 when the Crime Lab lost its only DNA analyst and had to suspend DNA testing and ship the cases to private labs. Similar problems caused the lab to halt DNA operations from 1996 to 2002.

Despite having fewer analysts, the number of active cases at the Crime Lab has dropped from about 8,000 in 1999 to about 3,000, James said. The lab handles about 22,400 cases a year, James said. The agency's turnaround time on analyses in drug cases is within 30 days, she said, in part because the drug section is properly staffed.

"Our goal is by the end of 2005 to have every case turned around in 30 days," Fortenberry said. "That at least sets a measuring stick for us. Whether it is realistic, we'll see."

Rankin County Sheriff Ronnie Pennington said he has noticed a marked improvement in the timely return of cases.

"Back years ago, it was a nightmare," said Pennington, a former narcotics officer. "You would submit something and you'd be lucky if you got it back that year. ... They are doing a lot better now."

But some law enforcement agencies say they haven't had the same experience as Pennington.

Pearl Police Department Chief Bill Slade said it took four months for the Crime Lab to process drug evidence earlier this year.

"That is too long," he said. "I understand their staffing problems, but evidence must be turned around faster than that so we can get people through the court system."

In the JPD case of Bell, Mary Dixon, 28, 246 Whitfield St. in Jackson, was labeled as the suspect in the case and remains jailed on a separate drug charge, but the blood did not match Dixon's, police said

"Police often say, they are waiting on the Crime Lab, but in this case, they didn't ID which Crime Lab," James said. "Their Crime Lab eventually came to us a month later. In many cases, we are waiting on the police. It's never quite so simple."

Jackson police spokesman Robert Graham said he was not aware of the delay at the city's Crime Lab.

The state Crime Lab can expedite cases when police request, James said. A gunshot ballistics case was turned around in two hours recently and "we can do those things, if the confines of science allows," she said.

The state Crime Lab has four locations: Jackson, Meridian, Batesville and Biloxi. James recently began shifting cases from its busiest labs to those with less of a case load. The lab also is preparing a list of all active cases to be mailed to all district attorneys in the state to avoid processing evidence in cases that have already been handled, among other things, she said. That database should be in place by the end of the month, she said.

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