PRINCETON — A policy on limiting the number of items submitted for DNA testing in criminal cases enacted by the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab is helping bring down the backlog of cases the lab has been experiencing in recent years.
The issue of limits on evidence surfaced in the recent murder trial of a woman accused of decapitation.
Mercer County Sheriff’s Office Det. Logan Addair said he could send only six items to the lab for DNA forensic analysis, which raised concern by the defense attorney.
But the defendant was found guilty and Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler said the limitations, started about two years ago, have not presented any problems.
“They were already overwhelmed and have a backlog,” he said. “They were seeking to prioritize. It takes awhile to get results back.”
Sitler said the limits have not been an issue and prevents, in some cases, “hundreds of items of evidence” to be submitted in a case that may not be necessary.
“It (a limit) only makes sense,” he said, adding that in some cases more items can be submitted to the Crime Lab if needed.
The policy specifies that an agency can submit five evidentiary items, plus the known sample from the suspect, for a total of six in a homicide investigation where there is one suspect and one victim.
If “probative information” is obtained, additional items will not be submitted without special circumstances and prior to discussion with the prosecutor, investigator and lab staff.
Probative evidence either proves or helps prove a fact or issue, Sitler said.
Five additional evidentiary items may be submitted for analysis if no probative information is obtained during the initial testing.
Sitler said in the decapitation case, another piece of evidence has been sent to the Crime Lab for DNA analysis to help determine if other suspects may have been involved.
Shari Lemons, director of the Crime Lab, said the policy has proved to be helpful and the lab remains ready to help if further testing is necessary.
“We have had great success with the case acceptance policies in all applicable sections of the laboratory (the first were implemented in late 2016),” she said. “We have had very few if any complaints and I attribute that to the fact that if the forensic question being asked by the investigator or officer of the court has not been answered within the constraints of the policy, we are happy to perform additional testing. We have found that the policies are stringent enough so as to ensure fiscally responsible use of state and federal dollars yet flexible enough to ensure we are meeting our customers’ needs.”
The policy was implemented in 2017 after the Crime Lab was trying to deal with backlogs that often delayed cases by up to a year, costing counties money as defendants sat in jail awaiting the results.
Legislation passed in 2017 also added money to buy more equipment for the lab as well as add more personnel.
Attorney General Patrick Morissey also steered funding to the crime lab to help.
“The current backlog is approximately 1,700 cases, down from 4,886 at the end of 2016,” Lemons said. “I don’t envision having a backlog of less than approximately 1,000 to 1,200 at any given time due to the nature of our work and the need to batch like-cases for the best use of resources.”
Lemons said her goal for the laboratory in 2020 will be “to focus less on a backlog (since it should be negligible) and more on a consistent 60-90 day turnaround time lab-wide.”
“This short turnaround time ensures that law enforcement will have the forensic services they need as quickly as possible to move effectively through the criminal justice system,” she said. “I believe our current operation continues to be effective. The goal will be to possibly expand services should our staffing levels remain as they are and turnaround times continue to decrease.”
Lemons said she does have a concern about consistent continuing funding.
“My concern is the lack of dedicated laboratory funding,” she said. “We were provided temporary funding in 2016 to address the backlog. However, those funds will be exhausted as early as 2021 and we will lose the vital staff that have contributed so greatly to these laboratory improvements. I want to be certain that all backlog reduction efforts supported by our agency, the legislature, and other stakeholders continue for the safety of our citizens and for the benefit of our criminal justice system. “
In the policy enacted in 2017, Lemons wrote that the intention was not to eliminate necessary analysis or to discourage evidence collection.
“By limiting the number of samples per type of case … unnecessary testing is reduced and turnaround times are improved,” she wrote.
The policy not only limits the number of evidentiary items that can be submitted, depending on the charge, but also the particular procedure that must be used to allow the Crime Lab to perform its job more efficiently.
Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com