SPECIAL REPORT: SLED crime lab backlog affects cases, families - WRBL

SPECIAL REPORT: SLED crime lab backlog affects cases, families statewide

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An analyst at the SLED crime lab in Columbia demonstrates the processing of sample evidence on Monday. An analyst at the SLED crime lab in Columbia demonstrates the processing of sample evidence on Monday.

The hardest part of any criminal investigation and subsequent trial for many victims, or surviving families of victims, can be waiting for an arrest or even a suspect to be named. 

"They can see someone put to death in the electric chair or by lethal injection or whatever, and still not have the satisfaction they thought they were going to feel," said Patty Fine, long-time victim's advocate for the 15th Circuit Solicitor's Office. "The only thing that can bring that back is for them to get their loved on back."

Fine, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials statewide often have to wait to get key pieces of evidence processed and analyzed at the State Law Enforcement Division crime lab in Columbia by DNA analysts, and because of the volume of cases, it can take quite a while.

"This is a tedious process," said Surfside Beach Police Chief Rodney Keziah. "It's a time-consuming process, to be able to do the DNA comparison and analysis."

"(Victims and families) think the easy way to do things is going to be like they see on TV, because it happens in an hour and, in a commercial break, they've already got results back," said Fine. "That's not the way it goes in the criminal justice system."

SLED spokesperson Thom Berry initially declined to have the agency be a part of a story News13 was working on, and, after a month of back-and-forth correspondence, official declined last week.  News13 contacted staff members with Governor Nikki Haley's office for comment on the matter, and Berry then called back to say SLED would be willing to participate and comment on the story. 

SLED agents allowed News13 to visit part of the crime lab on Monday, February 10, and Lab Director Major Todd Hughey explained how the processing, analysis, and evaluation of evidence transpired.

"We have over 100 scientists, technicians, and support staff, collectively, that can bring resources to bear on a particular case," said Maj. Hughey. "Forensic science is not an 8:30 to 5:00 job. We work nights, weekends, holidays, whatever is necessary to get the job done."

Hughey acknowledged that sometimes cases are moved ahead of others, through a laboratory prioritization process, or as a favor to prosecutors and investigators.

"It's a continual process," said Hughey.

He did acknowledge that recently the crime lab prioritized evidence pertinent to the Heather Elvis disappearance case in Horry County.

Fine agreed that SLED officials, all the way up to and including Chief Mark Keel, are accommodating when agencies call for a little extra help. 

"The problem is: you have Allendale, or Barnwell or Florence," said Fine. "You've got all the other counties in South Carolina that probably need their cases moved to the front, too."

Chief Keziah said his officers spend the waiting time working the cases, trying to find out whatever they can to keep the information coming in.

"There's more interviews you can do, re-interviews, there's some more evidence you can look at," said Keziah. "That's just the icing on the cake when those results come back."

Meanwhile, some agencies have tried to find ways around the waiting period.  Florence County Coroner Keith Von Lutcken said his recently started sending specimens to a private lab (instead of SLED) for toxicology results. Von Lutcken said he had seen some cases take up to five months to return results, where a private lab could send it back in 10 days.

15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson told News13 he'd like to see some of his prosecutors—and others in other parts of the state—clear old cases out of the queue at the crime lab. Richardson said so many cases are already resolved, like when a defendant reaches a plea deal. Those old cases are only clogging up the system.

Hughey and other SLED agents also acknowledge that some prosecutors across the state have already begun that process, and that SLED continues to get more resources though the state budget process to try to improve the waiting time caused by the case load submitted to the lab.

"It has changed," said Hughey on Monday. "We are constantly evolving and adapting our process to meet the needs we encounter as far as evidence being submitted to the laboratory."


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