RALEIGH,N.C. — Our justice system is not known for speed and efficiency. One recent holdup in the courts is evidence analysis. Despite more taxpayer money, evidence keeps piling up at the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab.
More than two years ago, a WRAL investigation found thousands of DNA samples from rape cases sitting on police department shelves. The SBI turned them away because the lab was so understaffed there was no way to keep up with DNA case work.
"We've come a long way, but there are miles to go," state Attorney General Roy Cooper said.
Cooper lobbied lawmakers and won millions in funding to hire more analysts and expand the lab. The basement, once slated for a day care, will make room for more DNA testing. There are also plans for a whole new wing.
In 2003, the law changed requiring all convicted felons submit DNA samples. That has greatly increased the database and vastly improves chances that agents will match criminals to unsolved crimes.
"Right now, we've pretty much opened our doors to just about every case that's out there," said Mike Budzynski, an SBI special agent.
While opening those doors ensures more cases will see justice, it has also led to a new wave of demand for evidence analysis.
"Part of the problem comes up now because the advances in technology are far outstripping our ability to deal with it," Durham Superior Court Judge Ken Titus said.
Titus said court cases that in the past never would have required lab analysis now demand it for the sake of accuracy.
"It has certainly slowed down the pace at which we would like our cases to move through the system," he said.
For instance, delays in evidence testing for the murder of Janine Sutphen could mean it takes two years for her husband, Robert Petrick, to go to trial.
"It's much more difficult to prosecute a case that's older," Titus said.
It could also mean innocent people sit in jail longer waiting to be exonerated.
DNA cleared Darryl Hunt of murder after he spent 18 years in prison.
Even with more SBI staffing, DNA cases still take anywhere from 8 months to a year to get analyzed.
"It will take a while to catch back up," Budzynski said.
Now, there is a new problem. While DNA got all the attention, resignations cut the staffing in drug testing at the lab nearly in half. At the same time, the case load nearly doubled.
"Our turnaround time has gone up," SBI lab director Jerry Richardson said. "Right now, we're looking at anywhere from 10 months to a year to work a drug case and that's unacceptable. We want to get that down to 30 to 60 days turnaround."
With the explosion of meth lab cases, that is going to be a tall order. Each meth bust takes up, on average, 40 hours of an agent's time.
From meth to marijuana, about 30,000 drug cases come to the lab each year, far outnumbering DNA and other evidence combined.
The drug lab is so overloaded, the SBI is now asking prosecutors to prioritize cases. That means some misdemeanor crimes could get tossed out.
The solution? From crime scene to crime lab to courtroom, the answer sounds familiar.
"People have to be aware that this is a problem that can be solved through additional resources," Titus said.
"We have to do more," Cooper said. "We will be there the first day of the General Assembly arguing all the way through the last day."
With a billion-dollar state budget shortfall already projected, proud days like this will be harder to come by.
During the last legislative session, the SBI lab requested 18 new positions; only 6 were approved. Next year, it will ask for 31 new agents.