In one of his first acts in the new legislative session, state Sen. Tom Apodaca, of Hendersonville, introduced a bill on Jan. 30 that would create and fund a new branch of the State Crime Laboratory in Western North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Joseph John, director of the state lab, has delivered a preliminary plan for the facility to the N.C. General Assembly.
The new lab would be located on the campus of the state-run Western Justice Academy in Edneyville, in Henderson County, a training facility. It would expand on the operations of the State Bureau of Investigation’s current lab in Asheville, which handles several kinds of forensics but doesn’t conduct DNA analysis or the toxicology work necessary for determining levels of intoxication from blood samples.
The bill would allocate $14 million to construct the facility, and $1.9 million for each of the next two fiscal years to compensate 19 analysts and support staff. See the text of the bill, and follow its progress, here.
The lab could help alleviate delays in DWI cases in this part of North Carolina and elsewhere in the state.
The SBI’s main lab, in Raleigh, and a smaller lab in Greensboro are saddled with severe backlogs in processing blood evidence from such cases. In addition, only the Raleigh lab can conduct the DNA analysis that can be crucial for addressing crimes including rape and murder.
According to law enforcement officials, the shortage of lab resources is exacerbated because often SBI analysts have to travel from the Piedmont to WNC to testify about their toxicology and DNA reports. The trips can prove hard to schedule, and they take the analysts away from their lab work, further delaying evidence processing.
Mike Bonfoey, the Waynesville-based district attorney for WNC’s seven westernmost counties, has been one of the main proponents of establishing a modernized crime lab here.
“There’s no blood analysis for alcohol levels being done in the west,” he said last week, noting that he hadn’t read the new bill but was quite familiar with its purpose.
“We’re the seven North Carolina counties farthest away from Raleigh,” he said. “So just coming over here and going back is 10 to 12 hours of travel time. It’s a time and distance problem.”
Then there are the delays in analyzing evidence. It can take six to 12 months for blood-evidence reports to come back from Raleigh, Bonfoey said, and longer for DNA reports.
Director makes a case for a new lab
In John’s report to the General Assembly, which can be read below, he wrote that a “‘perfect storm’ of insufficient staffing, escalating case submissions, and the judicial requirement that lab scientists personally appear in every court proceeding, has taxed the lab’s current capacity to the limit.”
He highlighted several figures to stress the need for an expanded lab in WNC, including these:
- “Toxicology requests (primarily in DWI cases) to analyze blood for the presence of alcohol and drugs … soared to nearly 10,000” in the past two fiscal years — and at present, “only 12 toxicology scientist positions are funded to test these submitted samples.”
- “More than one-third of lab toxicology submissions (38 percent) originate in counties served by the present Western Lab, but must be transmitted either to Greensboro or Raleigh because the Western Lab has neither the specific personnel nor the scientific equipment to accomplish toxicological analysis.”
- During the last fiscal year, the Raleigh lab “received 3,915 DNA casework submissions, a jump of 16.5 percent over the previous year” — and 20 percent of those submissions were from western counties.
Establishing a new western lab would help expedite cases not just in WNC, he asserted, but statewide.
“The many western counties of North Carolina would gain closer and quicker access to forensic testing and expert testimony as well as decreased turnaround time,” he wrote. “Lab scientists in Raleigh and Greensboro would be free to focus on cases originating in other areas of the state and to achieve similar progress in those cases. Court and travel time for all lab analysts, which keeps them out of the laboratory, would be significantly reduced.”
John estimated that it would take 26 months to complete the new facility. If funds for the proposed lab are included in the June 2013 state budget, he predicted, it could become operational in the summer or fall of 2015.