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Retired Lt. Steve Taormina test fires a rifle at an Oregon State Police crime lab. A backlog at state crime labs has at least one local family searching for answers.
Crime lab backlog isn’t new, but directors work to mitigate court delays
A backlog at state crime labs has at least one local family searching for answers.
Jeff Black, who was badly burned in an August 2013 incident, is wondering when the district attorney’s office will get results on forensics in the case.
District Attorney Tim Thompson says this case isn’t the only one being held up by lab backlogs.
“The backlog has been substantial,” he said, though it has been worse in the past few years.
In court, this means some cases must be set over before hearings can take place.
Directors of the labs in Pendleton and Portland say backlogs aren’t new, but they are something directors are continually trying to figure out how to mitigate.
“We actually have a pretty large backlog,” said Tom Barnes, director of the Portland metro lab.
The backlogs at the crime labs, though, vary based on discipline.
“Toxicology is in pretty good
shape,” Barnes said. “I know that our DNA backlog is over 900 cases.”
DNA backlogs have caused delays across the country. According to the National Institute of Justice, DNA backlogs are increasing because of an increasing demand for DNA testing. At the same time, laboratories rarely have the resources to tackle each case as soon as it comes in.
The NIJ classifies DNA backlogs as cases more than 90 days old. The Portland crime lab, which handles more complex testing than local labs, has 451 cases backlogged more than 90 days, though Barnes says the lab prioritizes those cases, with crimes against persons being handled before property crimes.
“I’m willing to bet you most of those 90-day plus cases, most of those are property crimes,” Barnes said.
The backlog picture is less grim at the Pendleton lab, which serves the nine Northeast Oregon counties.
“All of the evidence from the agencies comes to our labs,” said Director Keith Kerr. “We do certain analysis here.”
Scientists at the Pendleton lab handle controlled substance analysis, field investigations and some preliminary testing for firearms processing among other preliminary tests.
Anything needing advanced comparison is shipped to Portland.
Kerr says every lab in the state is looking at a backlog of some sort.
“That’s just due to how important forensic evidence is in all cases,” he said.
In Pendleton, most requests are for controlled substance analysis. As of Monday, 173 cases were pending in that discipline.
“The greatest majority of those are under 30 days,” Kerr said.
In other disciplines, the numbers are far lower: 19 biological cases, 69 latent print cases, 29 firearms cases and one trace evidence case.
Since Kerr joined the lab as director in September 2009, he says there have been positive changes at the lab in terms of resources. Then, there was only one scientist and a staffer. Now, he has four scientists, one support staff and himself. The state, however, closed the lab in Ontario several years ago.
Kerr said they do what they can to mitigate delays from the backlog.
“We work very closely with our other laboratories,” he said. Oftentimes that means sharing cases to get testing done faster. “We’re doing all we can to meet the agencies’ needs.”
The state crime labs serve every law enforcement agency in the state, though the Portland lab gets a bulk of the work due to its location and its handling of more complicated evidence.
“We do quite a bit of their work over here,” Barnes said. “The demand for our services far outweighs our resources.”
Barnes and Kerr both said they try to work with agencies to make court dates as long as they have advanced notice.
“We’re trying to work with our customers to make sure we’re only doing what’s absolutely necessary to save time,” Barnes said. “We triage a lot of these cases when we can.”
With a lack of resources, the directors said they are also trying to work with the Legislature to provide funding for a few more positions.
Local law enforcement officers said they aren’t directly affected by the backlog but work with the labs to try to prioritize testing evidence in major cases.
“It’s like anything with law enforcement,” said Sgt. Bill Miller, a detective with the Union County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s going to ebb and flow. I know they’re doing the best they can with what they have.”