Backlog swells at Washington state crime lab

SEATTLE — A dearth of trained firearms ballistics examiners at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division has clogged the justice system and created backlogs of up to a year.

On average, it now takes state experts more than six months to complete ballistics tests in cases involving firearms. Detectives often wait up to a year for results.

That means delays in bringing answers to crime victims, or their families.

Now, confronted with a soaring state budget shortfall, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed cutting jobs from the crime lab.

“Everybody’s in the same leaky boat,” said Larry Hebert, the state crime lab’s acting director. “The tricky part is not being the one to sink the boat.”

The state crime lab is actually seven labs throughout the state, including one in Marysville, with about 150 employees. All the fat already has been trimmed from its budget, Hebert said. Any more would eat away muscle and may mean a reduction in the kind of services it provides.

“It takes time to do a thorough, thoughtful job,” he said.

The science of fighting crime isn’t like TV shows where complex lab work takes minutes. Much of the work is painstakingly slow, Hebert said. A diligent ballistics examiner, for example, may process about eight cases a month.

Processing evidence within a month of when it is collected by police is the lab’s acceptable standard, Hebert said. But of the six different kinds of analysis conducted by the state lab, the one-month deadline is met in only two areas.

Testing for DNA on average takes two months. Fingerprint exams take about 47 days. Microanalysis — looking at fibers, shoe prints and other evidence — can take about five months.

“While those backlogs exist, there are a lot of new victims, and victims of older crimes, that are not getting justice,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor and chairman of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

State law mandates the crime lab’s existence. Local police departments don’t pay for evidence they collect to be processed.

It takes about $17 million each year to run the sophisticated laboratories, money that comes primarily from the state’s general fund.

There are private laboratories that do forensic testing, but the costs are extraordinary, Hebert said. Processing DNA can run in the thousands of dollars and firearms testing can cost about $2,000 a case.

When local police or prosecutors turn to those labs, they must foot the bill.

Hebert said the state crime lab would be forced to either eliminate services or reprioritize the kinds of crimes it investigates should budget cuts require layoffs.

Officials already are selective about what types of cases they send to the lab. In 2009 the lab stopped processing leaf marijuana cases and instead trained officers to identify the substance in the field and then testify about the evidence in court, Hebert said.

Should further reductions be necessary, the lab may have to narrow its focus to priority cases such as violent felonies, he said.

The backlogs haven’t prevented the lab from rallying to meet trial deadlines or help locate dangerous suspects.

Key evidence was processed in days to help Seattle police apprehend Christopher Monfort, the man accused of killing Seattle police officer Timothy Brenton, who lived in Marysville. By contrast, tests results are pending in most of the fatal shootings by police in Snohomish County last year.

State forensic experts place a priority on making sure cases are ready for trial, Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe said.

“When we have a case going to trial, they get it done, often by burning the midnight oil, ignoring their families, probably, and just getting it done,” Roe said. “Only rarely is trial delayed.”

Having state crime lab investigators respond with local detectives in the disappearance and killing of Sherry Harlan earlier this month was critical, Snohomish County sheriff’s spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. The information they gathered likely will be used in the criminal case.

Still, the backlog at the labs regularly delays investigations and charging decisions, Roe said.

The backlog is felt by detectives too, Hover said.

“We have some cases in our office that are awaiting forensics results from the lab and not just the firearms ballistics department,” Hover said. “I’m sure that’s true for other agencies as well.”

When possible, Snohomish County prosecutors now try to reduce the caseload sent to the lab. Controlled substances cases are sent only if the case is destined for trial or if a defendant is claiming “it isn’t dope,” Roe said.

One reason for the backlog is the difficulty in finding qualified firearms ballistics examiners.

That problem isn’t limited to Washington.

Nationally, the FBI lab has a backlog of about 300 ballistics cases, special agent Ann Todd said. It’s taking about four months on average to turn around results.

Federal agents used to be able to help state and local crime laboratories with backlog issues.

“At this time, based on current staffing levels, we are no longer in a position to offer this type of assistance to our crime laboratory partners,” Todd said.

The state lab in Idaho must send firearms examinations out of state for peer review, because the state has only one trained person on staff, said Anne Nord, a lab manager in Coeur d’Alene.

Oregon State Police have a handle on their ballistics cases but, like Washington, are behind in processing DNA, said Glen Spencer, a forensic supervisor at the crime lab in Portland.

They have the equipment, but not the trained workers.

“We do understand the time it takes to train new people. That’s really where the rub is,” he said.

Robots and sophisticated computers are used to extract and identify DNA evidence. In contrast, ballistics exams come down to a highly trained set of eyes peering at bullet fragments through a comparison microscope, Kobilinsky said.

The apprenticeship for firearms examiners can take up to three years, while a DNA examiner can be trained in six months.

Only after years of training can examiners link bullet fragments to a specific weapon and testify as experts in court.

Even so, the field is moving to bring quantitative and objective resources to firearms exams, Kobilinsky said.

“There’s an issue of whether the whole field of ballistics can demonstrate that the conclusions are scientifically based and reliable,” he said.

That’s likely to take resources and time.

Meanwhile, Washington has four ballistics examiners training right now.

Hebert said he hopes that the lab will be fully staffed and backlogs reduced by this time in 2011.

It’s a matter of public safety, he said.

“To us it’s more than just numbers, because we live in these communities,” he said. “That’s our back yard, too.”

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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