Originally created 03/02/05

Lack of staff slows work at crime labs



For law enforcement and prosecutors, forensic science can be a blessing, helping end mysteries surrounding unexplained deaths or solving crimes.

But without enough people to staff the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime labs, it's a blessing delayed.

State budget cutbacks have left the GBI's labs with a logjam of cases because of staff shortages, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.

"With budget revenue shortfalls, we've been unable to fill positions," he said. "There's not enough people to work cases."

Without obvious signs of trauma, bullet wounds or stab wounds, toxicology tests performed by GBI labs become key in determining the cause of death, Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said.

For example, the cause of death in the case of Paul Gruebel, whose body was found behind a Wrightsboro Road day care last month, is pending toxicology results. Mr. Tuten said it could be 18 weeks before he receives the results, after which he will be able to present a final cause of death and sign off on a death certificate.

The certificates are often required for a monetary settlement from an insurance company, he said.

"I've had cases where the husband was killed and the wife was waiting on insurance money to pay for the rent, the lights and to hold her over until she got some kind of income coming in," he said. "You can lose your house in 18 weeks."

The court backups aren't just in Augusta - they're statewide.

J. David Miller, the district attorney for the Southern Judicial Circuit, covering five counties near Valdosta on the Florida border, said the delays have created backups in his court system.

"For even something as simple as a possession of cocaine charge, we had a week of trials in January of cases dating back to last July," Mr. Miller said.

In Valdosta and Lowndes County, officials are discussing expanding local crime labs to perform necessary drug tests, he said.

In the Macon circuit, District Attorney Howard Simms said drug cases have backed up in his jurisdiction.

TV shows such as CSI, which show the public the wonders of modern forensic testing, can create unrealistic expectations, Mr. Tuten said.

"They think, 'Junior died. You ought to be able to tell why,'" Mr. Tuten said. "CSI does it on TV in an hour."

Mr. Bankhead said that during an autopsy officials draw bodily fluids, including blood, urine or stomach contents, that might show what contributed to the victim's death. Those fluids are sent to the state's toxicology lab sections for analysis, using gas chromatographs and other devices that can detect substances.

DNA analysis and other complicated testing must be completed at the main lab in Decatur, in the metro Atlanta area.

As of January, more than 2,000 toxicology cases were more than 30 days old, Mr. Bankhead said. In all, there are more than 34,000 backlogged cases of all types, from simple chemistry to DNA testing, in addition to firearms testing and document evaluation.

District Attorney Danny Craig said the delays, as a result of the labs' staff shortages, prevent some cases from going forward.

The results can't be presented to juries, and, because the scientists running the tests must show up in court to testify, cases get delayed, he said.

Despite staff shortages at the state labs, Mr. Simms and Mr. Craig said the labs have been accommodating in expediting tests.

Relief might be on the horizon. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed spending about $3 million to outsource cases, many of which will be toxicology cases, Mr. Bankhead said.

There's also a proposal to increase staffing in next year's fiscal budget, he said.

Reach Jeremy Craig at (706) 823-3409 or jeremy.craig@augustachronicle.com.

The Impact:

State budget cuts over the past few years have left the GBI's crime labs short on staff, causing delays in criminal court proceedings and the issuance of death certificates.