EDITORIAL: Lab work

Forensic testing backlog could place cases at risk

The Texas Department of Public Safety recently announced it was hiring more people to try to reduce wait times for people getting driver’s licenses and other services. We hope they have similar plans to address an even more critical backlog.

Forensic science — the evaluation of evidence taken from a crime scene — is a fascinating topic; television programs about the topic are among the most popular offerings. It’s understandable; forensic science often is the key to convicting guilty criminals, or exonerating people who have been wrongly accused.

There’s a lot at stake.

Unfortunately, backlogs at DPS forensic testing labs are unreasonably long and getting longer, and that could threaten many cases that depend on it.

As staff writer Mark Reagan reported last month, as of late August forensic testing hadn’t even begun at the DPS crime lab in Weslaco with regard to a capital murder case against an Edinburg man, 18 months after the crime was committed.

The wait for forensic test results in other local cases exceeds three years.

Prompt adjudication of such cases is important. Not only can witnesses’ memories begin to fail over time, but important physical evidence such as blood and other tissue begins to deteriorate, making accurate analysis and discovery of trace elements more difficult.

In addition, our Constitution mandates that criminal defendants must receive a speedy trial. While no exact time frame is prescribed, some judges have dismissed cases, even murder cases, if they determined that a personal has waited an unreasonable amount of time to be brought to trial.

The Weslaco crime lab is only one of 15 such facilities the DPS operates across the state, and it isn’t the only one dealing with a backlog of tests that need to be performed. An analyst at the El Paso lab recently was found to have falsified the results of 22 blood tests. That can happen when a harried worker is pressured to provide results of tests that haven’t been performed.

To be sure, the caseload is heavy. Every day the labs receive more evidence that needs testing to prove or disprove a possible link between a defendant and a crime, determine causes of death or decide if a person could be charged with drunk driving.

And as the population continues to grow in the Rio Grande Valley and Texas as a whole, we can only expect the case load at the DPS labs to continue to grow.

The DPS Crime Laboratory Service occupies some 660 people. The backlog makes it clear that more are needed.

The job require specialized training, but local colleges have shown a willingness to work with employers to create academic programs to help fill their needs, and we’re sure other institutions across the state do the same. DPS would do well to work with them to help recruit and train forensic specialists, and expand its lab force in order to provide results in a more timely manner.

The proper adjudication of countless court cases, and the fate of those involved, depend on it.