Justice delayed

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on December 6, 2012 at 11:26 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 7 at 12:16 PM

AUSTIN -- Crime shows on television like to show off high-tech lab technology. Results typically show up in minutes or even before the next commercial break.

It’s fast forensics, but pure fantasy in the real world. “Certainly the real world doesn't work like TV. It takes time to process evidence," say Tom Vinger, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Still, even in the real world, it’s taking too long to process cases in Texas.

An investigation by the KVUE Defenders and the Austin American-Statesman investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has discovered significant delays in lab results at DPS.

It's forcing the agency to do something it's never done before and ultimately delaying justice for victims' families and those accused of crimes.

Amy Harrison has been waiting for DPS lab results since July. She wants to know whether the driver of a SUV was intoxicated or on drugs when they hit and killed her husband in Lockhart.

“I don’t know how to move on until I know what happened,” Harrison explained inside her Fort Worth home.

Vinger says the lab completed its analysis on the case in November, but Harrison won’t know the outcome until a grand jury reviews the case sometime early next year.

According to an internal DPS memo obtained by the Defenders, "The submission of blood alcohol cases has skyrocketed by nearly 500 percent in the last six years."

In 2011, the DPS crime lab in Austin completed approximately 2,600 blood alcohol cases. In 2010, it completed about 1,860.

DPS attributes the increase to a state law that now requires law enforcement to draw blood for all suspected felony DWI offenses and during “no refusal” weekend operations.

There are 13 labs across the state with 333 crime lab employees; 268 of those are forensic scientists. Last year lab results took about 30 days. It’s now averaging twice as long.

"That does not surprise me at all. That's exactly what I would have expected," explained Clay Abbot with the Texas District Attorney Association.

He helped lobby to get the law changed, but didn't advocate to give DPS more resources to deal with the increased case-load.

“We didn't know how fast it was going to go, or what the result was going to be. It was a little lack of forethought,” contended Abbot.

To deal with the problem, DPS is doing something unprecedented. It's now requesting law enforcement to stop requesting work involving misdemeanor drug cases, like marijuana possession.

Vinger says DPS will only process cases if the prosecutor requests it.

“This allows us to, in theory, focus on more serious drug cases, being felony drug cases. This does have an impact on blood-alcohol, because the same forensic scientists work blood-alcohol cases," says Vinger.

DPS needs million of dollars to buy the resources it needs to deal with the problem. Abbot says state lawmakers need to pay for its unfunded mandate.

“Labs are expensive, but even more expensive are more personnel. Nobody wants to hire more government employees, but this is one area that we just richly need it," Abbot argued.

During the past few months, DPS reallocated its resources to add about 15 forensic scientists focused on drug and alcohol cases.

According to budget requests, DPS says it needs eleven more forensic scientists and more money to purchase additional lab equipment.

Check out Friday’s edition of the Austin American-Statesman for more coverage on DPS lab delays. Statesman investigative reporter Tony Plohetski found out how the issue is impacting the City of Austin's crime lab and what one lawmaker thinks should happen.

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