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Cases stalled because of crime lab cutbacks

ASHEVILLE (AP) — North Carolina’s State Crime Laboratory has fewer people and less money than it did in previous years, leaving prosecutors and defendants waiting a year or more for results.

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that lab director Joseph R. John Sr. says that an increase in evidence submitted for testing also has led to long wait times for analysis. The lab’s budget is $13.3 million, down from $13.6 million. Since 2009-10, the crime lab staff has decreased to 124 from 130.

“I don’t challenge them on the statements that they are waiting longer. They are. It is not through lack of effort on our part,” John said.

In western North Carolina, driving-while-impaired cases are being continued while prosecutors wait for test results. Earlier this month in Haywood County, prosecutors dismissed a DWI case against a man who had two prior convictions.

Prosecutors waited six months for the test results and another eight trying to get the former analyst who performed the test to testify. The analyst who did the testing had left her job at the crime lab and would not accept subpoenas sent via certified mail, said Haywood County District Attorney Mike Bonfoey. Without the analyst, prosecutors could not use the results of the blood test.

John said his office was not made aware of that situation.

He said the lab has intervened in the past to make sure a former employee testified, but “That being said, this person is not our employee anymore, and there’s not a great deal we can do other than appeal to their best civic interest and responsibility, and we’re willing to do what we can.”

Despite the increase in the number of cases, lab workers are spending less time in the lab and more time traveling to court and testifying. That’s because of a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that required the person doing the blood testing to take the stand if the defense objects to the admission of the test results alone.

The number of court hours, including travel, for forensic toxicologists in Raleigh grew from just less than 700 hours in 2009 to more than 2,400 hours in 2010.

The problems have increased interest in a lab in Asheville that could handle blood testing in cases like DWI and make it easier to arrange for lab employees to testify.

“The main thing that could happen to help Western North Carolina is to expand the lab here,” Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore said.

The current lab does not do blood toxicology testing.

John said the N.C. General Assembly has authorized a study looking at expanding the Asheville crime lab. The agency will report to the Senate and House committees early next year.

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