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Sheriffs: W.Va. forensic lab results slow

August 08, 2009|By TRISH RUDDER

DNA testing delays frustrate family

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It took the Morgan County Sheriff's Department 10 months to get confirmation from the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory in Charleston, W.Va., that a substance it sent there for testing was heroin.

Results are slow in coming from the only crime lab in the state, which tests everything from all 55 counties, Morgan County Sheriff Vince Shambaugh said. 

"It slows down conviction rates, and the perpetrators have been caught again out selling while we're waiting," Shambaugh said.  

The sheriff said the delays are a statewide problem that needs to be addressed, and the issue was discussed at a recent West Virginia Sheriffs Association meeting in Philippi.

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Shambaugh said many county sheriffs spoke of their concerns. 

"Any forensic case is very slow," Shambaugh said.

That includes identification of drugs, latent prints and tool marks, which is under the broad scope of forensics and is handled by the crime lab in Charleston, he said. 

Shambaugh showed a box that contained heroin that was sent to the Charleston office on May 19, 2008, and received there May 27. The results were returned to Berkeley Springs on March 24, 2009. 

West Virginia State Police public information officer Sgt. Michael Baylous said the crime lab could use more space and that staffing issues play a role in the delays. The lab often loses staff to private labs that offer more pay, he said.

Shambaugh said the sheriffs suggested another crime lab in either Huntington or Morgantown. He thought Morgantown would be the most suitable for the Eastern Panhandle. 

"This is not to slam against the Charleston office. We need to be able to do our jobs better," Shambaugh said. 

He said the sheriffs were going to write to the state Legislature for help. 

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said law enforcement cannot do its job properly with such a long wait for evidence. 

"I will definitely raise the issue," Unger said. "I will work with them." 

Morgan County Prosecutor Debra MH McLaughlin said the Charleston office is very cooperative "when we are in a push." She said if she needs evidence right away, the office will accommodate her.  

"Anything to get evidence quicker would be a plus," she said. 

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela J. Games-Neely said funding for the Charleston crime lab comes from the West Virginia State Police budget.

She said about two years ago a regional crime lab was being discussed but "it never got out of committee" because funding was not available.

She said the Charleston lab is shorthanded.

"We would all benefit by training more people and retaining them for the existing lab," Games-Neely said. "Money will be the issue."

Rep. Daryl E. Cowles, R-Morgan/Hampshire, said improvements must be made to get evidence back quicker.

"It's a safety issue," he said. 

Cowles said he wants to find out what is causing the delays. He said he will recommend to the Legislature that the issue be studied and a solution sought. 

Unger said a state medical laboratory was available in Morgantown until the medical examiner there retired. Perhaps that facility could be reopened, he said. 

"Our biggest challenge is resources," Unger said. 

Games-Neely said a state medical examiner's satellite office for autopsies is at West Virginia University's Health Sciences Center in Morgantown. It opened a couple of years ago, but it's not equipped as a crime lab. 

The Medical Examiner's Office in Charleston handles the bulk of the state's autopsies, Charleston Police Detective Dana Rowsey said. 

He said the WVU office was opened to perform autopsies from areas like the Eastern Panhandle to reduce travel time to Charleston. 

He said DNA testing is conducted at Marshall University's Forsensic Science Center in Huntington, about 50 miles from Charleston.

 

 

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