Crime lab backlog leaves coroners, families waiting for answers
When Miller County Coroner Tim Bradley investigates a violent or unexplained death, he sends a blood sample to the Highway Patrol crime lab.
Then the waiting begins.
Bradley said he often must wait eight months or longer for toxicology results. During that time, he can do virtually nothing.
"I have to wait to get those results in before I fill out a death certificate," he said.
Without that death certificate, Bradley said a host of legal processes can't move forward, not all of them related to the investigation itself.
"That's an eight-month or longer time frame where I've got a family waiting for a death certificate where they're dealing with insurance companies, waiting on life insurance policies, closing out bank accounts," he said.
The Highway Patrol said its investigations usually don't take that long. It quoted an average of 90 days. Longtime Lake Ozark defense attorney Tim Cisar said in his experience, samples from alcohol-related crashes usually are returned in about 90 days. Drug investigations are more complex.
"Just to get to the fact that there's alcohol in a fluid and what the level of the alcohol is easier and doesn't take as long as finding out what's the substance that's in this blood," he said.
Even so, Cisar said drug investigations rarely take longer than eight months and sometimes take as few as five. Regardless of how long they take, Cisar said legal cases rarely proceed without crime lab data.
"Let's say I'm driving, I kill somebody, they take my blood," he said. "They could maybe prove the case without the lab showing I had two times the legal limit in my system, but it's a lot easier to prove it with that evidence. And most prosecutors are not going to go forward without something from the crime lab."
The Highway Patrol's main crime lab is located in Jefferson City, with seven additional regional labs scattered throughout the state. The patrol said the lab handles case requests from more than 500 law enforcement agencies statewide each year, including more than 5,200 toxicology tests. Cases are generally tested in the order received, but requests involving coroners or high-priority felonies move to the front of the line.
Cisar said not all of the labs have the same capabilities. The Jefferson City facility has the most complete services. In addition to handling the patrol's own investigations, Cisar said that facility tackles requests from county prosecutors and the attorney general's office.
Bradley said the equipment and expertise the lab possesses are expensive, so few agencies have similar capabilities. A single mass spectrometer can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that's before you hire the highly-trained technicians required to operate it. Cisar said those technicians can't be replaced overnight.
"Every time you replace somebody, it's a good long while before you're up and running," he said.
Bradley said privately-run crime labs are available, but they charge $300-$600 per blood draw. The patrol's lab does it for free. Additionally, Bradley said state crime lab technicians are always able to testify in court, something he can't always count on in the private sector.
Cisar said the case backlog is improving. He said the patrol renovated the lab recently and prioritizes its cases to ensure the most pressing ones, such as murders, are addressed first. If case backlogs are still a concern, he said the crime lab will need more funding.
"We want the labs to work faster? More personnel and better facilities," he said.
That's the recommendation of the state's crime lab review commission. In its 2015 report, the most recent one to include wait time data, the commission found the patrol handled more than 26,000 cases a year. The commission noted in 2015 and again in 2016 sustainable funding was needed to deal with backlogs in firearms, drugs and toxicology.
Over the past five budget years, state lawmakers have increased the patrol's crime lab budget by $1.7 million. The patrol said the state budget dictates staffing levels and facilities.