Special Report: Delayed Justice

Special Report: Delayed Justice
Rep. Ed Rynders
Rep. Ed Rynders

ATLANTA, GA (WALB) - Evidence in thousands of criminal cases has been sitting for months in GBI crime labs waiting to be analyzed. What caused the backlog, and is it getting better?

Scientists at the state crime lab in Moultrie carefully analyze drugs seized during criminal investigations. And diligently test DNA evidence, but that evidence is stacking up.

So we went to Atlanta to get some answers. To be considered backlogged, tests on evidence must go unfinished for at least 30 days. GBI Director Vernon Keenan calls the number of backlogged cases now acceptable. "As of today, we have 5,700 cases in the backlog.  Progress has continued," he said.

But is that true? Digging deeper, we found after significant declines in 2012 and 2013, the backlog got worse last year. Still, Keenan says the crime labs complete 70 percent of cases within 45 days, and 90 percent within 90 days; a significant improvement over just a few years ago when the backlog was staggering.

"Oh gosh, over 15,000, and the turnaround times were very unacceptable," said Keenan.

Keenan admits a long delay can sometimes make it more difficult to get a conviction. "The investigation itself can become stagnant."

He says the explanation for how the backlog got so bad is simple. "We had a shortage of scientists."

Keenan blames major spending cuts state lawmakers made to every state department when the recession hit. "We went through a period of time where when we lost a scientist, we did not have the funding to replace them."

But State Representative Ed Rynders from Lee County says Keenan could have changed his priorities and chosen to spend more of his budget to hire scientists. "He makes the recommendations and then loves to point the finger -- and that's just the way it's done -- and just loves to sit there and go 'it's them.'"

Rynders stands by the cuts lawmakers made to the GBI. "During economic down times, we can either raise your taxes or live within our means. Georgia chose to live within our means. I can't live with the status quo."

Director Keenan says next year, he plans to ask for funding to hire 10 additional toxicologists. "We've got to add additional scientists because this state is growing."

In the first six months of this fiscal year, the number of cases coming in to GBI crime labs jumped nearly 10 percent. He says if the GBI budget doesn't continue to grow. "It's got to increase. No question about it."

The case backlog will grow-- leading to Delayed Justice.

The number in the backlog rose from 5,158 at the end of 2010 to nearly 7,400 the following year.

Two years of declines cut the backlog nearly in half in 2013 before a drastic increase to more than 6,300 at the end of 2014. Progress has been made early this year.

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