It’s the headquarters for the men and women in green and it’s also home to the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab. Located in South Charleston, this facility handles 6,700 cases a year from DNA to toxicology but with only 41 lab experts the cases add up.
“We have a 9-12 month backlog,” WVSP Crime Lab Director, Sheri Lemons said. “Somebody is suffering out there. To me, it’s not a complicated solution. It’s not that costly to fix that problem on so many levels, I think we would see relief in the jails, we’d see relief in the court systems, the county commissioners would see a drop in their budget and their regional jail debts. I really think it’s a small price for a big solution.”
The lab not only handles cases from State Police, it also works to solve crimes for the nearly 800 law enforcement agencies across the state. It’s a $5 million dollar yearly operation. As budgets have been slashed across the state the agency has also taken cuts.
“When they feel the heat of a budget cut, such as what we’ve experienced in the past few years the laboratory takes a hit,” Lemons said. “Even though that laboratory services all law enforcement, not just state police. We take a hit just like every part of the department.”
A direct hit to the crime lab. Erin Spearen is the crime lab’s only toxicologist. She handles cases across the state specifically involving drugs and alcohol.
“With the budget cuts that we had last year, I lost an open position that I had,” Spearen said. “”We typically would have three people in here. But even with three people I don’t know that we could keep up with the influx of cases coming in.”
Leaving one person to do the job, Spearen said on average she handles up to 1,300 cases a year, alone. Spearen said the biggest problem isn’t the workload, it’s letting criminals get back on the streets.
“We have DUI drivers that are arrested sometimes multiple times before I can even finish the first sample,” Spearen said. “They’re waiting for their first day in court and I haven’t gotten that first sample for that case to move forward. It makes it difficult. It also adds a danger factor to everybody out on the roads because those people aren’t being punished for the things that they’ve done.”
Though science cannot be rushed, Lemons said the backlog will continue until relief comes from the state.
“The intent of forensic science is to provide an investigative lead, Lemons said. “Unfortunately we are so far behind, I feel like we’ve become a hindrance to the system almost. It’s a real shame to have to send letters to the prosecutors and investigators sending letters to get their cases moved forward because they’re going to miss a court date, or a statute of limitations is about to expire. So absolutely, that’s a problem for us to be backlogged the way we are.”
With the West Virginia State Police’s main goal is to provide justice for victims across the state. Lemons said she and her team will work efficiently and effectively until a better solution arrives.