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Police Turning To Private Firms For Lab Tests As SBI Lags

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The State Bureau of Investigation was buried under a backlog of cases for years.

Increased funding led to more agents clearing cases and now the director insists there is no longer a backlog.

Still, there are complaints it takes too long to get DNA results back.

Some state law enforcement agencies are shelling out thousands of dollars for alternative solutions to solving crimes.

In the Rosa Lee Crabtree murder case, detectives have worked round the clock to get a killer off the street. Investigators collected dozens of pieces of evidence and most of it was sent to the SBI.

But, for one key piece of DNA evidence, the sheriff's office went elsewhere.

"We sent it to a lab in Burlington," said Capt. Paul Martin. "We're trying to speed up the process."

DNA Security is the private lab in Alamance County where the evidence was sent. The lab opened in Burlington in 1998 and recently expanded.

There, lab results can be turned in less than 36 hours time.

DNA Security's director said in the last year, the number of law enforcement agencies using his lab has increased.

Dr. Brian Meehan said at least 10 counties use the Burlington lab on a regular basis. He said most of them use his lab because of the quick turnaround.

SBI Director Robin Pendergraft said if it's a priority or matter of public safety, her department can produce DNA results in a matter of days.

She points to the Stephanie Bennett murder case in Raleigh, in which the SBI worked with Raleigh police to get a DNA sample from suspect Drew Planten.

When investigators got what they were looking for, the SBI turned around the sample in a few days. But on average, it takes 65 days to test a DNA sample.

Since 2002, the SBI has increased DNA lab staffing from six to 30 technicians.

Turnaround time has improved, but Pendergraft admits the agency can do better.

"Are we making progress? Yes," said Pendergraft. "We need to continue making progress and I would not say that we are where we want to be to serve the people of the state."

Agencies like the Durham sheriff's office agree and say for now, it pays to go private. Every day they wait, it is another opportunity for the criminal to strike.

Labs such as DNA Security can charge as much as $2,000 for testing. One reason they can producer quicker results is volume.

The SBI handles thousands of DNA tests every yearperiod DNA Security tests under 500.

The Durham Police Department, the Durham District Attorney's Office and the Chatham County District Attorney's Office say they've all used independent labs when they needed results in a hurry.

As for the SBI, the agency hopes to cut the average turnaround time to 30 days within the next year.

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