Prosecutors across the state have complained for years about a backlog of evidence testing that delays trials. Sometimes delays are so long that charges have been dismissed in cases ranging from routine drunken driving to more serious offenses, including rape and murder.
So far proposals to speed up tests have focused on hiring more analysts at the State Crime Laboratory and working around a court ruling that requires lab analysts to testify in person. But even if those methods were put in place, experts say, they wouldn’t solve the problem.
Now some judges and other court officials have embarked on a far more achievable strategy of making administrative changes to the way these cases are handled on the bet that cumulatively they will help speed up test results.
“These are little recommendations that seem like common sense and can potentially have an impact if implemented,” said Jessica Smith, a professor with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, who organized the effort.
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North Carolina’s three crime labs – only the one in Raleigh handles all types of testing – are inundated with an endless stream of requests that come from more than 600 law enforcement agencies and 44 district attorneys. They test for DNA, controlled substances, firearm markings, fingerprints, alcohol and drugs, and trace evidence such as hair, gunshot residue and fiber.
DNA testing, in particular, has become increasingly in demand in recent years. North Carolina, like most other states, is also compiling a database of DNA taken from all convicted felons. Those demands have increased the workload.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants have the right to cross-examine crime lab analysts at trial. That requires analysts to sometimes travel across the state to testify and, once there, spend hours waiting to be called to the witness stand.
In 2012-13, North Carolina’s analysts accumulated substantial overtime while logging 2,822 hours in court – less than 10 percent of that time spent actually testifying. This year a law took effect allowing analysts to testify by video, but defendants have to consent to it.
Smith developed a weeklong course in criminal procedure for judges, which included a visit to the crime lab in Raleigh in May. She thought it would be useful for the judges to learn about the backlog firsthand. Their visit to the evidence room made an impression.
“Standing in that room, surrounded by tens of thousands of pieces of evidence, really brought home in a way hearing facts and figures can’t the scope of the problem and the critical importance of doing everything we possibly can to help solve it,” Smith said Friday.
Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner in Rowan County was among the students.
“When we saw piles of evidence, stacks of marijuana wrapped up, just how much stuff was waiting to be tested we were just amazed,” she said Friday.
Wagoner was one of the first to sign up the next day when Smith asked the class whether anyone wanted to look for solutions that didn’t require legislative action, funding or difficult legal issues. The working group included judges, prosecutors, crime lab staff, a witness coordinator and a lawyer with Indigent Defense Services, and Smith. Wagoner, a former U.S. attorney in Charlotte, chaired the group, which met over the summer.
They came up with 17 recommendations that they could all agree on dealing with better communication between prosecutors and the labs, changes to procedures for expert testimony and changes at the labs to speed things up –although evidence would still be fully tested. Concerns raised from the viewpoint of defense attorneys were taken into account, Wagoner said.
The reception has been encouraging, Smith said. The report went to senior Superior Court judges across the state on Oct. 20. Since then, in spite of a busy election season that affected many judicial and district attorney offices, already three judges have adopted the recommendations, nine say they are close and 23 say they plan to, Smith said.