Two Surprising Solutions For The Backlog At The NC State Crime Lab

Nov 18, 2014

One of the refrigerators at the NC State Crime Lab
Credit Eric Mennel

Like many crime labs across the country, the North Carolina State Crime Lab in Raleigh has a serious backlog. One reason is finding and paying qualified staff. But a new report issued by researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Government shows a second, more complex problem.

The report goes into detail about the effect a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Melendez-Diaz, had on the way forensic evidence gets admitted at criminal trials.

Melendez-Diaz was a drug trafficking case. During the case, the prosecutor submitted sworn statements from lab personnel about a substance found at the scene (cocaine) and the weight of the substance. But defense attorneys objected. They called the paperwork a violation of their clients constitutional rights. They argued that the paper filing violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

The case went to the Supreme Court, which agreed. So now, if the state wants to introduce forensic evidence, lab personnel must personally attend a trial to provide the results of their lab tests.

"That dramatically changed the way forensic testing is introduced at trial, and it had huge implications on criminal cases" said professor Jessica Smith, the author of the report. "Think for a minute what North Carolina looks like, from Manteo to Murphy. It's a long state."

There are three labs in North Carolina, but the Raleigh facility is the only full-service lab. Analysts must drive from Raleigh to courtrooms around the state. In addition, one case may involve several analysts.

"When you combine these problems of staffing with this new decision that requires the in-court testimony, the changes were dramatic," said Smith.

Simple Solutions?

We were surrounded by tens of thousands of pieces of untested evidence. The ocular proof of standing there, being surrounded by all that evidence, was stunning

Last May, as a part of the The North Carolina Judicial College, Smith had a chance to bring many of the state's judges to the crime lab. After an introduction, they went to the evidence locker.

"We were surrounded by tens of thousands of pieces of untested evidence. There were refrigerators along the wall, filled with biological evidence," remembers Smith.

"I was standing next to a bale of marijuana wrapped in saran wrap. There were shelving units as far as the eye could see filled with envelopes of material waiting to be tested." The envelopes held evidence related to rape, murder and other cases.

"The ocular proof of standing there being surrounded by all that evidence was stunning," says Smith.

A working group then brainstormed ways to deal with the backlog. They came up with seventeen ideas, some of them incredibly simple. For example:

1. Give lab personnel information about what's happening in the courtroom. (Sometimes, lab staff would travel across the state for a trial, only to find out that the case had already been resolved.)

2. Design a system to alert judges when lab personnel are on-site and available to be called as witnesses. (Judges have the discretion to take witnesses out of order. The sooner an analyst testifies, the sooner s/he can get back to analyzing evidence.)

>> Phoebe Judge goes inside the State Crime Lab for a first-hand look at the amount of evidence yet to be tested.