KSP Crime Lab Works To Clear Backlog Of Cases That Concern Local Judges

By Tony Hyatt

(LOUISVILLE, May 6th, 2003, 9:30 p.m.) -- In the TV world of "Law and Order," the crime lab is used to find the key evidence to make the conviction -- and it is usually done in about an hour. In the real world of Jefferson County's courts there is concern that the time involved for testing is too long and there are still too many delays for justice.

"In the 13 years that I have been a judge, in the first 11 years, the drug lab took about two weeks to get test results back, " says District judge William Ryan. "Over the last few years, it has now been extended to about 11 months."

Ryan was so concerned about the delay he brought it before the city crime commission a few months ago in hopes of bringing attention to the problem.

"I have probably four or five defendants who have been arrested three or four times for narcotics possession while they are still waiting on the drug tests from their first arrest," Ryan says.

The drug lab in this case is the Kentucky State Police Crime lab in Frankfort. Last year, it handled almost 41,000 cases that required some kind of testing. A little under 20,000 involved drug substance testing. A little over 15,000 were toxicology tests, DUI blood tests.

"Eighty percent of the case work we do is for agencies other than State Police," says Jeff Warnecke, forensic lab manager for the KSP. "The bottom line is we needed more people."

Warnecke says the explosion in technology for forensic science as well as retiring technicians caused the situation that led to the backlog of cases. "The Governor and the Legislature have given us additional personnel to try and get the backlog down," he says.

11 new hires were approved late last year and an additional 15 technicians are being trained to be on line on July 1st.

That comes as welcome news to the Chief Judge of Jefferson District Court.

"They are making a concerted effort to reduce the backlog," says Chief Judge Donald Armstrong. "They have made some hires and they have money for more hires as well as a new system to speed up testing."

Officials at the crime lab say they are faced with challenges on priorities. Jefferson County is trying to get faster test results and so are 119 other counties throughout the state.

"It gets down to a point where you have 10 cases, and all 10 people want their cases done next," says Warnecke. "Well, how do you decide whose case is more important? That is the kind of thing we have to leave up to a judge and prosecutor to try and work out."

In many felony drug cases for example, after an arrest, the prosecutor has 10 days to present a case for a probable cause hearing. Test results essentially help make that case. Without the results, the prosecutor must decide after 20 days whether to proceed or dismiss the charges. Sometimes, the case is dismissed without prejudice. The charges could later be re-filed.

Judges Armstrong and Ryan say for now they are optimistic the crime lab is making the effort. They hope the progress continues in an effort to get the turnaround time back to two weeks.

"Even though there may be a delay right now, the case is going to catch up with a defendant," Ryan says.