Budget cuts hold up criminal cases

A former high school band teacher accused of molesting two students last year has been scheduled to stand trial several times, but the proceedings cannot start until DNA tests are completed.


Anthony Shelton's case is just one of many criminal cases in legal limbo until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation can generate evidence reports, a process made more difficult with the mandated statewide budget cuts this year.

The GBI's crime labs have had backlog problems before -- in the late 1990s and again four years ago -- but this year's state budget cuts are hampering law enforcement with a hiring freeze of 41 open positions, said agency spokesman John Bankhead.

Prosecutors, including Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright, say it's taking longer to get lab reports in every category.

It isn't a crisis yet, Ms. Wright said, because in an emergency the crime lab scientists have been able to bump a priority case to the front of the line. Still, it's a problem.

Highly technical testing such as DNA can take months. Even drug analysis takes twice as long as in the past, Ms. Wright said. Drug analysis reports that used to take a month now seem to take two to three months. It slows the movement of cases through the system, she said.

Ms. Wright estimated that 65 percent to 70 percent of her office's criminal cases require evidence testing.

The labs' backlog of DNA and fingerprints evidence changes daily, but the backlog for all other testing is 5,241 cases, Mr. Bankhead said.

Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Jim Gordon leads the crime scene team that collects evidence.

The GBI lab scientists do a great job, Sgt. Gordon said, but they are backed up. He was informed this month that forensic examination of a computer he submitted in October is just now getting started.

The Richmond County crime scene investigators do some evidence analysis, such as fingerprints, but they need the GBI for DNA, computers and firearms testing.

Augusta law enforcement benefits from having one of the GBI crime labs here. It includes a medical examiner, Sgt. Gordon said. He can send a team member to every autopsy, which couldn't happen if the autopsies were done in Atlanta.

The local lab doesn't have a firearms examiner, however, Sgt. Gordon said.

He learned recently that a weapon used in a crime last year still hasn't been examined.

The labs can work quickly. Investigator Steve Fanning recalled a homicide case a couple of years ago that started with 10 suspects and three weapons. Within 24 hours the lab provided a report that helped investigators eliminate some of the suspects, he said.

Richmond County State Court Solicitor Harold Jones said there haven't been delays in drunken driving cases.

"In fact, they have been really good in getting our results back within 30 to 45 days of the blood or urine screen," Mr. Jones wrote in an e-mail response.

The GBI labs perform DNA tests on every prison inmate. Mr. Bankhead said the labs now have DNA profiles on 169,493 inmates.

Sgt. Gordon said he gets several hits each month from the inmate testing.

In February, the GBI reported a hit involving a July 2006 burglary at Davis Insulation on Frontage Road. The burglar left behind a blood-stained paper towel. The GBI reported the blood was most likely left by Carl L. Green, 48.

Mr. Green, whose lengthy criminal record stretches back to 1989, was indicted last month in connection with the Davis Insulation burglary.

The budget passed this month by the General Assembly provides funding for nine months, Mr. Bankhead said. Officials hope a supplemental budget will pass in the next session to keep the GBI in operation.

Since July 1, the crime labs have generated 55,159 reports, Mr. Bankhead said. Scientists were able to complete 57 percent of those reports in 45 days.

There are 281 positions in the GBI's seven crime labs. There are 41 openings frozen, and two medical examiner positions and the forensic anthropologist job have been eliminated.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.


Example of cases left open pending crime reports:

- Former Butler High School band teacher Anthony Shelton, who is charged with child molestation and accused of having sexual contact with two 13-year-old students last year

- Charles Tyler, who is facing murder and robbery charges in the June 4 slaying of security guard David Fulkrod

- Charles James, who is facing numerous charges involving sexual assaults on three women in May and June