Crime lab funding is great news for Western North Carolina
Justice delayed is justice denied. That’s exactly what’s been happening in North Carolina’s justice system over the past couple of years when it comes to alcohol and forensic blood testing.
The state crime lab has been inundated with mounting blood cases and is unable to keep up, causing a backup on court cases that often end up dismissed.
However, the ball finally seems to be rolling on a cure for what ails the system, which is the construction of a crime lab in the western part of the state. Once in operation, a western crime lab will solve a host of problems that have compounded and escalated over the years.
The North Carolina Attorney General’s office has long identified the need for more funding for scientists who test the blood, which is rarely provided.
The strain on scientists and lack of state funding to hire more has led to a backlog of blood samples waiting to be tested. That backlog has crippled prosecutors who are handling cases that depend on those blood samples, especially in driving while impaired cases. It’s not unusual for blood samples to return more than a year after the offense, by which time many of the cases are dismissed altogether.
In addition, scientists at the state lab are spending thousands of hours traveling to appear in person in court cases, a rule imposed after a 2009 court ruling. A drive from Raleigh to some of the state’s westernmost counties takes anywhere from four to eight hours. That means thousands of hours that could be spent working on the blood case backlog.
The issues have frustrated law enforcement officers who get discouraged about pursuing DWI cases knowing they will likely be dismissed. It’s frustrated the prosecutors whose cases are stalled. Crime lab leaders struggle to keep up with demand. Victims sometimes never see justice and defendants are denied their right to a speedy trial.
We are happy to hear legislators have finally taken notice and taken action on the issue. They seem to be approaching the project in steps, starting with funding the design of the lab in last year’s budget at $1.4 million and now funding the actual construction for $15.4 million. The next step will be to provide proper funding for scientists and staff to work at the lab.
But every step is one foot forward and it’s expected the project from start to finish will take about four years.
It’s important legislators don’t lose steam on this issue and continue to fight for funding to see the project to completion in a timely manner.