Forensics are the linchpin of crime shows. In reality, lab delays are creating nightmares for innocent people

Backlogs of months and even years have emerged thanks to issues including poor funding, low pay, a flood of requests from attorneys and families and the Covid pandemic. Josh Marcus reports

Tuesday 30 May 2023 21:18 BST
A lab worker transfers solutions from one tube to another at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner
A lab worker transfers solutions from one tube to another at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (AFP via Getty Images)

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On 7 April, 2022, Colorado mechanic Derrick Groves was driving home and glanced down at his phone for an incoming call, causing him to lose control of his Tesla . The car went skidding over a highway embankment and down a small hill. But that wasn’t when things really got out of control.

Fort Collins police arrived on scene and grilled Mr Groves about whether he had been drinking or using drugs. He hadn’t. He submitted to a blood test on scene, knowing it wouldn’t turn up any evidence of intoxication. Still, an officer wrote in a report that “I observed Groves had blood-shot, glassy eyes, and his pupils appeared to be different sizes," and Mr Groves was charged with a DUI.

The charges related to the stop weren’t dropped until mid-August 2023 — 16 months later — when blood results came back from a state lab showing the driver hadn’t been intoxicated. During that time period, Mr Groves had to shell out money for a lawyer, saw his job prospects imperiled, and lived with the confounding experience of facing charges for something he knew he didn’t do.

“We could scream as loud as we wanted that this officer made a false arrest, but until they saw blood results, the prosecutor was not going to release him,” Mr Groves’s attorney, Matthew A Haltzman, tells The Independent. “There are more Derrick Groveses out there. It happens all the time as blood results take longer and longer to come back in Colorado. We’re seeing this as a huge problem. It’s not a potential problem. It’s a real problem happening right now.”

The state, which once had two different labs processing blood results — a state-run facility and a contractor — is now down to one, according to Mr Haltzman. That’s doubled the time it takes to get results back, from an average of about eight weeks to nearly four months.

It’s even worse for ballistic evidence, with the state crime lab taking an average of about a year to return results, according to an investigation from Denver7.

And it’s part of a nationwide problem. Forensic evidence is often the near-magical linchpin of police TV shows like CSI and Law and Order, but in the real world, it’s functioning as the opposite. Delays at forensic labs now cause lengthy backlogs that hinder criminal cases, leave rape kits untested for years, and, in many cases, prevent justice from being enacted at all.

“The problem with backlogs is across the board,” Dr Tammy Bracewell, associate professor of Criminal Justice at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, tells The Independent. “You’re going to find it in any state you look at.”

Indeed, cities and states across the country are struggling. The Mississippi State Forensics Laboratory has an eight-year backlog of drug tests, and a 15-year backlog of firearms tests. In Tennessee, a rape kit often takes 33 to 49 weeks to analyse at the state’s crime lab in Jackson. In Louisiana, homicide cases sometimes take as long as two years to return DNA samples.

Covid shutdowns and the surge in violent crime during the pandemic exacerbated problems, but big-picture challenges – increased drug use, poor funding, low pay, a flood of requests from attorneys and families – predate the coronavirus.

“More crime creates more samples. If you take drugs, for example, the fentanyl has just really blown up. Meth and fentanyl cases, if you look at the fentanyl cases, it has impacted every lab that does controlled substances,” Kevin Lothridge, deputy executive director of the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University, tells The Independent.

“During the pandemic, there was an increase in domestic violence as well as sexual assault. That evidence ends up in the crime laboratory,” he adds. “Not only that — we’re looking to reduce the historic backlog of things like sexual assault kits. You have historic cases and current cases being run at the same time.”

These delays can stop or altogether foil criminal cases, and have devastating impacts on the individuals counting on evidence. As The Independent reported earlier this year, police in Kentucky have been waiting for years for the results of DNA testing from 2021 in the disappearance of Twilight Crooks, itself a cold case from 2001 only given new life by the advent of forensic techniques.

“There are a million things that run through your mind,” her father Bobby said of the disappearance. “Who would have done it? Why would they have done it? There are no answers. We don’t have any answers.”

In 2015, Washington state representative Gina Mosbrucker began working to tackle the state’s backlog of roughly 10,000 rape kits. “They were found in backrooms of law enforcement agencies, college campuses, and hospitals,” she tells The Independent.

The pile-up was the result of a number of factors, from poor handling of evidence and record-keeping, to officials not believing victims of sexual assault. The extent of the problem, and the nature of sexual violence itself, made the issue an urgent one for the Republican legislator.

“Rape is serial crime by nature,” she says. “It’s usually not just one.”

Working with colleagues across the aisle, Ms Mosbrucker was able to pass reforms that increased funding for testing, provided trauma-informed care training in hospitals, and sent some kits to outside labs to speed up analysis, helping get the backlog down to a few hundred remaining kits. “We don’t ever want to end up here again,” she adds.

Effective forensic testing can also serve as a check on police abuse.

As The Independent has reported, DNA evidence is often a key part of exonerations on death row, freeing inmates from wrongful arrests made decades ago.

Jason Haferman, the officer who pulled over Mr Graves in Colorado, has been accused of making numerous false arrests for DUIs. A CBS News Colorado investigation found he made at least nine arrests in 2021 and 2022 where forensic testing later showed the individual didn’t have any drugs or alcohol in their system, a rate of false arrest far exceeding that of all the mistaken charges made by the rest of the Fort Collins police as a whole.

In one case, in December 2021, a set of mistaken DUI charges caused a man named Harris Elias to nearly lose custody of his 15-year-old son.

“Knowing that I couldn’t even drive with my own kid and there was zero evidence that I violated any law… it made me feel six inches tall,” he told The Daily Beast. “By far, the thing that doesn’t go away from this case is the child abuse aspect of it. It is the ultimate way to hurt someone who has spent the last 15 years as a single dad.”

In December, Mr Haferman resigned from the police, amid an internal investigation that was about to lead to his firing. He showed “a pattern of performance that did not meet the training and standards we require for our officers,” Fort Collins police chief Jeff Swoboda said in a video message at the time. “This officer let our community down and that hurts,” he added.

Mr Groves, the mechanic who crashed his Tesla, plans to sue the former Fort Collins officer for his mistaken arrest.

The Independent contacted a number linked to Mr Haferman on public records for comment, but did not receive a reply.

It’s urgent that lawmakers don’t fall victim to the “CSI effect” — the Hollywood-influenced perception that forensic evidence is always analysed quickly and effectively — according to Kevin Lothridge of Florida International University. Rather, fixing the US’s patchwork system of local and state crime labs will take persistent investment. And even then, crime labs might never catch up with crime in the real world.

“Every case is a priority,” he says. “If everything is a rush, you’re never going to meet all the rush cases.”

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