Increased Demand Creates Investigations Bottleneck
by George Mazurak, Associated Press
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The main facility for the Missouri Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory is crowded into a single floor of a three-story annex to patrol headquarters, with space allotted for each investigative discipline.
In a suite jammed with equipment, state criminalists make nearly continuous use of eight gas chromatograph-mass spectrometers, analyzing evidence linked to drug offenses throughout Missouri.
Each instrument can analyze up to 100 samples at once, and state criminalists must keep track of the data, interpret their meaning and write a report on each sample for local prosecutors.
From DNA tests to fingerprint analysis, the work done in the crime lab can mean the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal, between finding a killer and never solving his crime.
Yet insufficient funding and understaffing combined with the increased demand for the crime lab's services have created a bottleneck in Jefferson City. Repercussions are being felt across the state.
"Justice isn't being served," said Capt. Terry Luikart, chief of the main lab and the five satellite labs operated by the highway patrol.
Delays in processing, he said, have resulted in "criminals out there with a case who have" neither "been put in jail or exonerated."
Luikart compares the system to an hourglass in which the upper crucible holds officers making arrests, the lower chamber represents offenders in prison and the narrow neck represents the state crime labs.
"For the bad guys to go from the top to the bottom, they have to go through this constriction one grain at a time."
Sixty percent of the lab's cases in 2001 were drug chemistry. Another 20 percent of the cases involved toxicological analyses. The remaining 20 percent included analysis of DNA, trace evidence, fingerprints, firearms and documents.
Backlogs range from two months for a firearms analysis to 12 months for a DNA analysis, Luikart said. Drug chemistry analyses can take five months; toxicological analyses can take seven months. The lab gives a priority to homicides and cases classified as "officer-involved incidents," Luikart said.
As a result, suspects including some who could be innocent spend more time behind bars awaiting trial than they did in the past.
"You'll get cases lingering in associate court for sometimes four months or more, just because there was no lab report yet and the prosecutors and judges refused to lower the bond," said Boone County Public Defender Gerald Mueller, who believes the pattern contributes to jail occupancy problems.
The highway patrol crime lab would need about 15 more full-time employees to handle its caseload without significant backlogs, Luikart estimated.
But requests for more lab personnel have gone unanswered by state lawmakers in recent years. The last increase in full-time employees was 1996.
In Missouri, the ratio of uniformed officers to crime lab criminalists is 130-to-1. A national crime lab association says a ratio of 40-to-1 is optimal.
Despite shortfalls, authorities in Columbia praise what the state crime lab and its civilian personnel do. "They bust their tails for us," Columbia police Sgt. Steve Monticelli said. "They do a fantastic job, for what few people they have out there."
"We rely very, very heavily on the lab for virtually all our forensic evidence in homicides as well as verification for controlled substances in drug cases," said Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane. The laboratory staff is "excellent. The problem is that there's not enough of those experts to do the work."
Lab delays affect drug cases. "Typically what happens is, the arrest is made and we know" the evidence "is cocaine but need a lab report in court," Crane said. The backlog results in multiple delays in court. Meanwhile, Crane said, a suspect released on bond might repeat the offense.
Mueller, the public defender, views the problem from a different angle. Several years ago, he said, a client charged with heroin possession who could not post bond sat in jail 4 1/2 months, until the patrol's lab report was complete. The criminal charge against his client was dismissed when the lab determined the substance was "cold medicine."
Despite snags, Crane said, the patrol lab is invaluable. "Without the lab, on a drug case and sometimes a homicide, we may not be able to have enough evidence to get a conviction."
Last year, a Boone County jury convicted Shawn Lawson in the shooting death of Stephen Holmes, whose body was found Jan. 3, 2000, in his car at Parkade Center. The patrol lab helped break the case, identifying Lawson's fingerprint in blood on the car's trunk lid. Criminalists provided expert testimony that the murder weapon was a .38-caliber handgun and that its muzzle was 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet from the right side of the victim when the shots were fired. Without forensic evidence, the state would not have been able to prove its theory of the crime.
After an investigation that lay dormant for nearly a decade, a Boone County jury last March convicted William Salmon of first-degree murder in the 1990 suffocation death of Judith Pritchard. DNA analysis by the lab linked Salmon to a stain on a long-stored bedspread from the victim's home. The highway patrol analysts calculated the likelihood that anyone but Salmon left the stain was 1 in 3 quadrillion 300 trillion.