Crime lab reduces backlog

Published 12:16 am Saturday, July 7, 2007

JACKSON (AP) — People don’t make a lot of trouble in Metcalfe, a town of 1,200 nestled amid the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. But when a crime occurs, the police there — like in any other place — need a fairly quick turnaround on processing evidence.

Metcalfe Police Chief Jim King says he remembers when he investigated an attempted poisoning case several years ago, he sent material to the state Crime Laboratory to be processed.

‘‘It was hectic. I sent some stuff down there and it took me almost a year to get it back,’’ King said in a telephone interview this past week.

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Such complaints were common several years ago among law enforcement officers across Mississippi.

Now, the Crime Lab has eliminated most of its backlog of work because legislators are boosting the budget and allowing vacant jobs to be filled, says lab director Sam Howell. The lab also is using federal grants to upgrade its equipment, including buying high-tech machines to analyze DNA samples.

The lab is a division of the state Department of Public Safety and has offices in Jackson, Batesville, Meridian and Gulfport.

The lab is authorized to have 100 employees statewide, and Howell said there were 30 vacancies about a year ago.

During the state budget year that ended June 30, the lab filled 21 of the jobs. Howell said he plans to fill seven more during the year that started July 1. He expects to fill analysts’ jobs before hiring anyone in vacant administrative positions.

‘‘Four years ago, they were throwing out drug cases because we couldn’t get to them on time,’’ Howell told The Associated Press on Friday. ‘‘And now, we have a two-week turnaround time’’ on most drug evidence.

He said the lab also is caught up on processing all the evidence it has been sent for sexual assault cases and has more than cut in half the number of active homicide cases it is handling in its bioscience and DNA divisions. Howell said the lab still has a backlog of fingerprint analyses to do for homicide cases.

Jefferson Davis County Sheriff Henry McCullum said south central Mississippi has seen an increase in illegal drug activity over the past several years, including in the manufacturing and sale of methamphetamine.

‘‘We’ve had our share of murders and drugs,’’ McCullum said.

He said the quicker his department can get evidence processed at the Crime Lab, the better.

‘‘It helps us to pursue the case quicker and get it ready for trial,’’ McCullum said. ‘‘It’s very important that we have enough examiners at our Crime Lab to help us to move our cases along.’’

Several years ago, some prosecutors were forced to drop or reduce criminal charges because of a long lag time in getting evidence analyzed.

In 1999, Frank Carlton, who was then a district attorney in the Delta, said he recommended to members of a Sunflower County grand jury that they not indict a man who had been charged with killing a local woman because the Crime Lab had not sent back test results from a bloody T-shirt and other evidence. The grand jury followed Carlton’s recommendation.

Howell has worked at the Crime Lab since 1985 and became interim director one month before Hurricane Katrina blew ashore on Aug. 29, 2005. The lab’s Gulf Coast office at the time was in the basement of a former Biloxi hospital that had been converted into state offices.

The building was deluged with 30 feet of water, and the lab was destroyed. Howell said ‘‘the overwhelming majority’’ of the drug evidence there survived because it was stored in heat-sealed plastic bags. The Gulf Coast branch of the Crime Lab reopened about eight months after Katrina, in trailers in Gulfport. The lab is still in the temporary quarters. The Department of Public Safety has cleared land for a new Gulf Coast office near Woolmarket; officials hope it will be built by December 2008.

The ‘‘interim’’ part of Howell’s title was removed in February 2007, when he became director of the Crime Lab.

He inherited a program that had been hit by a cyclical problem in state government — a surge of retirements by longtime employees, followed by budget years when there was too little money to hire replacements. The staffing shortages came at the same time the lab was inundated with time-consuming work on a national DNA database that started in the late 1990s.

The DNA section of the Crime Lab has made a significant dent in its backlog of cases over the past two years, Howell said. By December, the section will have five DNA analysts. The two analysts already on staff, Deedra Hughes and Bill Jones, are working with trainees.

While DNA is helping solve many crimes, Crime Lab employees say TV shows such as ‘‘CSI’’ are giving investigators and prosecutors unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to process crime-scene evidence. Even with high-tech equipment such as the two new machines the crime lab has bought this calendar year — using federal grants, at about $200,000 per machine — analyzing DNA samples still takes days rather than minutes.

Also, Hughes said: ‘‘The types of DNA we get in are more and more and more and more strange.’’

For example, Jones said, investigators have sent bags of soil to the lab in hopes of finding a bit of blood. Or, some officers have asked if a person’s DNA could be found on a leaf after rain.

‘‘We cannot say we cannot find a DNA sample until we analyze it,’’ Jones said.

Howell said it takes about 18 months to train a new forensic analyst. Many are fresh college graduates with degrees in biology or chemistry. Some have degrees in forensic science from the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Once new workers are hired and trained, it’s also a challenge to keep them here because salaries in Mississippi have lagged behind those for comparable jobs in surrounding states, Howell said.

For the new budget year, state employees in Mississippi are receiving pay raises of at least $1,500. Some are getting more money through ‘‘realignment’’ — a process that brings salaries in line with the pay scales for similar jobs in the private sector and for state government in nearby states.

State Personnel Board records show that forensic biologists and forensic scientists at the Crime Lab are receiving pay raises of about 10 percent.

For example, a person listed as the fourth, and highest, level of forensic biologist — one who has several years’ work experience and has met other on-the-job education requirements — has been paid $56,600 a year, Howell said. Personnel Board records show that job getting a pay raise of $5,712 this year.

The salary for entry-level forensic biologists and forensic scientists is about $33,000 a year.

‘‘I’d like to see it closer to $40,000,’’ Howell said.

The lab analyzes material for about 400 law enforcement agencies, from those as tiny as Metcalfe, which has only two police officers, to those as large as the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. Howell said evidence from more than 1,000 cases a month is sent to the four labs. That’s an increase of about 16 percent in the past two years.