These new state hires could help cut down North Carolina’s rape kit backlog

A SBI analyst readies drug screens in a Raleigh toxicology lab in this March 17, 2010, file photo.
A SBI analyst readies drug screens in a Raleigh toxicology lab in this March 17, 2010, file photo. File photo

North Carolina’s slow criminal justice system just got a little more efficient.

Attorney General Josh Stein traveled to Henderson County this weekend for the ribbon-cutting at a new State Crime Lab office for western North Carolina. There has been a regional lab in Asheville since the 1980s but the new one in Edneyville is twice as big and will be able to handle more types of evidence.

About 20 new employees will help the lab focus on drug evidence – helpful in combating the opioid epidemic – and DNA evidence, which could help the state cut down on a backlog of untested evidence from rape kits.

The new lab cost $16 million to build. It got started under Stein’s predecessor Roy Cooper, who is now the governor. On Tuesday at a Council of State meeting, the attorney general said both Cooper, who like Stein is a Democrat, and the N.C. General Assembly, which is led by Republicans, deserve credit.

“I thank the legislature because they stepped up and recognized the need,” Stein said. “It will speed up the disposition of justice.”

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. And in the past, North Carolina has sometimes dismissed charges – ranging from drunken driving to murder – because of lengthy delays that prosecutors blamed on the crime lab.

The State Crime Lab is in charge of analyzing forensic evidence like DNA, fingerprints, bullet fragments and blood samples that will come up in criminal trials.

The main lab is in Raleigh. While there has been an Asheville office for years, its size and capabilities don’t compare to Raleigh. It has a smaller staff and can’t analyze any DNA evidence. There is a third lab in Greensboro, but it also doesn’t test DNA.

That means any time a detective wants a piece of DNA evidence tested, he has to travel to Raleigh. From some mountain communities, that can be a 10-hour round trip.

If the state wants to use the evidence at trial, the crime lab analyst is often required to travel to testify. While analysts are out of the office, evidence continues to pile up and may delay future cases. Analysts spent roughly 3,500 hours in court last year.

“This facility will speed up justice all across the state as more scientists have more time to work cases,” Stein said.

In September 2016, the attorney general’s office said the average turnaround time to test evidence stood at more than seven months. That includes all crimes, from simple impaired driving to complex homicide cases. It can be done faster if police or prosecutors request a rush.

Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice run by Stein, said Tuesday that the goal is to drop the wait time for evidence tests to three months.

DNA evidence is especially important in rape and sexual assault cases. Under the current system, evidence in those cases sometimes has gone untested for years, or is simply thrown away.

While North Carolina doesn’t officially track the backlog of rape kits statewide, records requests sent to individual agencies have found serious delays – or worse.

Between 2000 and 2016, the Charlotte Police Department destroyed more than 1,000 untested rape kits. The Charlotte Observer interviewed national experts who said it might have been the largest destruction of rape kits anywhere in the United States – and that the loss of so much evidence could stop police from solving cold cases or identifying serial rapists.

Last month, the Fayetteville Police Department told news station WNCN that while it still had a backlog of rape kits, it had started going through years-old evidence and arrested more than 20 people for previously unsolved sex crimes.

“The prevalence of untested Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kits has attracted considerable concern and attention, placing a spotlight on crime laboratories, police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide,” the NC DOJ wrote in its annual report this year.

That report noted that North Carolina requested a federal grant to buy software to track untested rape kits but was turned down. It also said a new state law requires a one-time count of untested kits, which should be complete in January.

While the new lab will employ DNA analysts for western North Carolina counties to rely on, that’s not the only way officials think it will speed up the justice system. It will also expand the staff of drug analysts, as more and more law enforcement attention shifts to the problems caused by addiction to opioids like prescription painkillers and heroin.

North Carolina has been hit by the opioid epidemic harder than much of the country, and the western part of the state has been hit the hardest.

In addition to hiring more drug analysts, Stein’s office has launched a new website – https://opioidresources.ncdoj.gov – to help law enforcement officers and others learn more about how to prevent, treat or punish drug abuse, and share stories about what works and what doesn’t.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran