Cuts to state forensics department slow court proceedings
by Daniel Gaddy
Dec 29, 2011 | 1156 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Local law enforcement officials say statewide funding cuts to the department of forensics are slowing down the justice system.

“It quite frankly has to be addressed,” said Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair. “It has to be a priority.”

On Monday, State Forensics Sciences Director Michael Sparks told the Associated Press his department had $14 million to work with three years ago, but now has around $5 million a year.

Officials with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences shut down three of its 10 labs this year because of funding cuts. The locations were in Dothan, Florence and McClellan.

Sparks also told the AP there are 27 fewer employees in the department compared to 2009.

He said the reduction in resources has resulted in backlogs, particularly with drug tests and toxicology reports.

Adair said the prosecution of several local cases has been delayed because of lagging toxicology reports. He said his office often sends the tests off to labs out of the state, and his staff even has to pay for some tests out of the office’s local budget.

Jasper Police Chief Connie Cooner Rowe said local law enforcement officials understand that scientists with the department of forensics are doing the best they can with the resources available to them.

“We’re team players and acutely aware of how funding issues affect the processing of evidence,” she said. “We’ll bare through this with them.”

The department of forensics has also stopped providing transportation to ship bodies to laboratories.

Adair, who served as an assistant DA under Charles Baker, said the Walker County District Attorney used to order an autopsy for any death not attended to by a doctor.

Adair said he must be very selective about ordering the procedure now. For most cases, he confers with Walker County Coroner J.C. Poe and police or sheriff’s office investigators before ordering an autopsy.

The lagging test results often slow down grand jury proceedings, and Rowe, a former DA investigator, said the public often doesn’t know the reason for the delays.

Adair said the forensics backlogs also make trying cases more difficult because jurors have come to expect scientific evidence.

He said he hopes Alabama lawmakers will address the funding problem in the upcoming legislative session in Montgomery. “It's unacceptable for the state to allow its forensics department to get into this shape,” he said.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the cutbacks, Adair said, is having to explain to a victim’s family that they cannot have closure because of funding issues.