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BENTONVILLE -- A plan for a Crime Laboratory office in Lowell is raising hopes that its opening next year will speed up the wheels of justice, not just in Northwest Arkansas, but around the state, especially in drug cases.

Delays in getting test results on drug evidence mean prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the people accused of crimes often must wait months to proceed with their cases.

Cindy Moran, assistant director of the state Crime Lab, blames much of the delay on an increase in drug crimes.

The lab handles up to 32,000 cases each year, 22,000 of which are drug cases, she said. Northwest Arkansas law enforcement agencies submitted 7,722 drug cases in 2017, according to the lab's statistics.

Moran said the goal is to have results completed within 30 days. But, there's a backlog of 11,000 cases with an average nine-month turnaround time.

It's not an issue limited to Arkansas. Crime laboratories in Texas, Wisconsin, Maryland, Alabama and other states are dealing with a rise in drug cases as well.

Jean Stover, the executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, said states face a backlog for many reasons, such as a lack of staffing or equipment or an increase in overall cases.

The opioid crisis is also a reason. Labs have to take different precautions when handling fentanyl because it's so dangerous. Labs have to have proper ventilation, and analysts must wear protective clothing, Stover said.

Stover said labs also are testing more designer drugs, such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana, which takes extra time because of the research and work involved in analyzing them.

The delays are "clogging up the system," said Bentonville attorney Janette McKinney. "It just delays in disposing of cases."

McKinney said she has one client charged with drug crimes in separate cases, and she cannot resolve any of them because test results haven't arrived.

Benton County prosecutor Nathan Smith agrees that the Crime Lab backlog makes it harder to process and resolve cases.

It also affects district courts that mainly handle misdemeanor cases.

Jason Kelley, Bella Vista's city attorney, said he's seeing longer and longer waits.

"If there is an emergency, we can contact the lab and ask for something faster, but on district court misdemeanor cases that is hard to justify," he said.

Kelley said a lot of his dealings with the Crime Lab involve the testing of "green vegetable material" to determine whether it's marijuana.

"It can take months for a result to come back," he said. "Whenever a Crime Lab report is pending, it means necessary prosecution evidence is not available. Therefore, cases have to be continued until the reports are completed."

Kelley said the situation bogs down the entire judicial process. Cases may be reset multiple times until lab reports are ready.

"Obviously, misdemeanor marijuana cases are not top priority at the lab, nor should they be, but with this added facility [in Lowell], it will mean we can move more cases more quickly," he said.

"Right now, there is close to a backlog of between six and nine months for drug analysis," said Matt Durrett, prosecutor in Washington and Madison counties.

"Having a Crime Lab here may speed up getting results, but it will also free up police officers from having to carry evidence to Little Rock," Smith said.

Durrett said Northwest Arkansas police have to burn man-hours making trips to the Little Rock lab once every week or two, he said. "That eats up close to an entire day to do that," he said.

Gene Page, a spokesman for the Bentonville Police Department, says an officer in his department makes the seven-hour, round-trip drive to Little Rock every three or four weeks.

The delays also add to jail crowding.

The long wait for drug test results and trials being reset mean more prisoners stay longer in lockups, said Maj. Randall Denzer with the Washington County sheriff's office. The jail had 718 prisoners Thursday evening, and 380 of them were pretrial detainees, although not all of their cases are affected by Crime Lab delays, he said.

Jay Saxton, Benton County's chief public defender, sometimes offers inmates deals in which they plead guilty before test results are back if the offer is for time served.

"We advise them of their rights and discuss whether they want to wait or proceed with the plea," Saxton said.

He stressed that that policy is only for clients who will get out of jail the day they plead instead of waiting for months in jail. His office waits for results for nonjailed clients.

A Lowell laboratory also will save time for Crime Lab analysts. Moran said analysts are out of the lab for a day when they have to testify in cases in Northwest Arkansas. She said that means they have less time to analyze evidence.

The Lowell lab is set to open March 1. With it handling Northwest Arkansas cases, that will allow the Little Rock lab "to focus on the rest of the cases in the state. It will be a great service not only for Northwest Arkansas, but the entire state," she said.

Moran said the Crime Lab is hiring people for the new laboratory, and some employees will transfer from Little Rock to Northwest Arkansas.

Moran said lab personnel will have to equip the lab and follow proper testing procedures to maintain its accreditation. The new lab will do drug and toxicology testing, she said. Examining DNA and fingerprints will still be done in the Little Rock lab.

Metro on 09/02/2018

Print Headline: Testing backlog slowing up cases; all sides hoping Northwest Arkansas crime lab will help

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