Can new Nebraska State Patrol crime lab reduce "frustrating" evidence delays?

A Nebraska State Patrol technician demonstrates biological material detection in the crime lab. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
A crime lab chemist demonstrates identification of controlled substances. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
An automated drug testing device in the NSP crime lab. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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February 24, 2016 - 6:45am

After years of frustrating delays in processing DNA samples and drug-related evidence from the Nebraska State Patrol crime lab, both prosecutors and defense lawyers hope a new multi-million dollar building will speed up the process.


NEBRASKA STATE PATROL CRIME LAB

The crime lab responsibilities include testing for and identifying biological materials and DNA, fingerprint identification, firearm and tool mark analysis, testing of possible drugs seized during arrests, and toxicology.

CLICK HERE to read the long list of services offered by the lab.

An State Patrol technician demonstrates how shoe prints are analyzed as part of a crime investigation.

Using ultraviolet light, a lab technician demonstrates how fingerprints can be illuminated.

Inside the ballistics testing facility.

Array of comparison guns used in the State Patrol ballistics lab.  (Photos: Bill Kelly/NET News)

For more than five years the patrol’s lab has taken six months or more to process certain types of evidence. The slow turnaround time delays both investigations and criminal trials.

The delays are “extremely frustrating” according to Brenda Beadle, president of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Beadle said. “I don't know why it's taken this long, because this is so important,” agreeing the delays impact hundreds of cases annually.

The state patrol’s leadership said they are aware of the concerns, and look to efficiencies and new technology at the lab to improve turnaround time for evidence processing.

“Wait time is a big deal,” said Col. Bradley Rice, the superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol.

Speaking at the official opening of the new lab building on Lincoln’s northeast side, he noted the workload can be daunting since the lab processes evidence, free of charge, for more than 160 law enforcement agencies in the state.

“The folks here at the crime lab work on roughly 4,000 individual cases a year. That's a tremendous increase over the years. I can only see that increasing,” Rice added.

The crime lab’s annual report stated the lab processed 4,904 assignments that were submitted for work, down slightly from 5,134 in the previous year.

It is hoped the new lab facility, costing $11 million to build and outfit, will speed up turnaround times in delivering results from lab tests.

The old lab was notoriously cramped and not well laid out for streamlined processes considered best practices in forensic analysis of evidence.

At the facility's grand opening, director Pam Zilly told reporters additional space and improved work flow may reduce the wait.

The old building had a single evidence examination room. By doubling the square footage in the lab, technicians “no longer have to take turns waiting for an opportunity to use an area.” Technicians have individual workstations and the individual labs have an “efficient flow that takes them from work area to work area in a much more reasonable and productive fashion.”

Added technology is automating and speeding up analysis of DNA evidence, identifying possible illegal drugs, and measuring drug levels in a suspect's urine.

Rice said he is “very hopeful we can move much of those backlog(s) down by the end of the year to get within, in some cases, about a four-week turnaround which would be excellent."

There have been persistent concerns the staff of 26 at the lab is insufficient to meet the demands of the large caseload. Speaking to reporters at the opening ceremony for the new lab, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he wanted to see if improved workflow alone would lessen the backlog without having to hire new state employees.

“We still haven't gotten all the processes mapped out here yet. We have to get that in place first,” Ricketts said. He wanted to “see what our output is and then contrast that to where we were before and look to see what our needs in the future are.” 

Asked about staffing needs, Zilly noted while the lab does “not have additional resources (staff) yet but we do have room for additional resources in this building." Speaking while standing next to the governor and the patrol’s commanding officer, Zilly added “of course allocation of resources is something that is a much larger and more difficult issue.”

Rice said later in the news conference “adding additional staff would certainly help us and we have to evaluate exactly what's coming in and what's going out to get the proper number of staff.”

There is significant work to be done.

The federal government’s National Institute of Justice defines a DNA case as “backlogged” if it remains untested in a crime lab longer than 30 days.

According to annual reports prepared by the patrol’s crime lab staff, delays of six months are the norm for DNA evidence. That’s been the average turnaround time since 2011.

For attorneys trying cases and defending clients accused of a crime, a six-month delivery date means waiting for evidence right up until a trial must be convened should the accused demand a speedy trial.

“Nebraska statute says all cases should be done within six months,” Sarpy County Public Defender Thomas Strigenz said. For those waiting for a trial, innocent before guilty but detained until the evidence arrives, “when you're sitting in jail six months is a heck of a long time.”

Strigenz, in his role as the president of the Nebraska Defense Attorneys Association, has heard from public and private practice lawyers who have represented clients have waited for weeks to have their names cleared because of slow delivery of evidence in their cases.

“People's liberty interests are at stake,” Stringenz said. “Justice needs to be done for all parties concerned; for defendants, for victims, for prosecutors, for defense attorneys, in a timely manner and any delay is justice denied.”

The impact of sluggish crime lab reports remains a rare point of agreement for defense attorneys and county prosecutors.

Beadle, the chief deputy to the Douglas County attorney, conceded she often avoids using the patrol lab when she knows she is up against a tight deadline.

According to the Sarpy County Attorney's office, service from the NSP lab became so sluggish law enforcement stopped using the free evidence testing provided by the state in favor of paying for DNA testing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and analysis of controlled substances is currently done primarily by the lab at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

Beadle said prosecutors she’s heard from across the state, consider delayed DNA or blood evidence during an investigation is “obviously a safety issue when we have a suspect out there walking around.”

“It's a justice issue for the victim,” Beadle said.  “We like to proceed as quickly as we can but obviously we need the evidence to do that.”

The quality of the work with the state patrol evidence analysis is rarely an issue. The lab has been internationally accredited forensics laboratory since 2014, and received national accreditation in 2004. The accreditation board updated the approval in November of last year, shortly after the lab staff was moved to the new facility. 


EDITORS NOTE: The following changes have been made from a previous version of the story posted here.

  1. Sarpy County does not utilize the Nebraska State Patrol crime lab, as may have been implied by our choice of quotes from Public Defender Thomas Strigenz in an earlier version of the story.
  2. The Nebraska State Patrol crime lab tests only for drugs, not alcohol, when investigating someone’s level of impairment. Only urine is tested at the lab, not blood, as had been incorrectly stated in the story.
  3.  The lab received international accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in 2014. National accreditation had been conferred earlier.

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