Local News

Police Wish SBI Lab Could Handle Drugs Faster

Posted February 12, 2007 9:53 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2007 10:13 a.m. EST

— The State Bureau of Investigation lab, the clearing house for evidence in crimes committed across the state, is trying to blunt criticism about processing delays in drug cases.

It’s a sensitive topic because the state and local law enforcement must work together on cases. Officials in the field seem to feel the delays are too long. The lab’s director said things are getting better.

Recently, the SBI lab revamped its DNA testing in a bid to help police clear cold cases from years when DNA analysis was not available.

Now, the SBI is working to dig out from under a bigger backlog—drug cases that can stack up for months. Law enforcement feels the weight of the backlog because felony drug cases go nowhere until the drugs are verified at the SBI lab.

In 2006, that meant nearly 30,000 cases.

One place that feels the pressure is the Cumberland County Detention Center.

“The felony cases are the real hold-up in the jails,” Cumberland County Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler said Monday. Delays in the court system and evidence processing are pushing the 4-year-old Cumberland County jail close to capacity with inmates in stalled cases.

Many district attorneys echo the concern through their professional group.

“There is a myriad of cases that require lab work to be done that are getting older and older—one and two years older,” said Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

Law enforcement officials sound worried, but not angry.

“It has been a problem,” Butler said, “but certainly I understand their problem.”

“To me,” said SBI Director Robin P. Pendergraft, “the perception can be quite stale” and complaints about backlogs are outdated.

Retirements and an extra focus on DNA two years ago delayed drug chemistry, Pendergraft agreed, but she also said the lab is slowly catching up with work that included more than four thousand rush orders last year alone.

She is not satisfied, but she disagrees with the perception of a big delay.

Today, drugs like cocaine, meth, and heroine average about seven months for processing. The SBI goal is one month.

“We're not there in every discipline. So, am I satisfied? No,” Pendergraft said. She adds, however, “We have made considerable progress.” She also said shen hopes that new analysts and an expanded lab should help more.

To help trim the backlog, the SBI director said, she has urged prosecutors to try to dispose of smaller drug cases without testing. However, she flatly denied accusations that she ever recommended law enforcement not arrest certain suspects.