By PHILLIP BANTZ
The lab has been scrambling to chip away at a heaping pile of unsolved crimes, but the chance of clearing the thousands of backlogged cases remains slim.
“We’re constantly trying to improve our workflow, but we’re at the point now where I don’t see how we can improve efficiency to offset the number of new cases coming in,” Lab Director Timothy J. Pifer said during a recent interview.
“How can you possibly say you’re getting there, that you’re getting ahead, when you have years of backlogs and it’s not easing up?”
Last year, the lab received more than 7,700 criminal cases — about 120 from the Keene Police Department – containing dozens of pieces of evidence that required nearly 10,000 forensic tests, from fingerprinting to DNA and firearms analysis.
Criminalists had 3,067 backlogged or uncompleted forensics tests left over at the end of the year, according to Pifer. And the work just keeps piling up.
“The lesser crimes continue to get pushed back,” he said. “Most law enforcement agencies know that if they submit evidence on property crimes it could sit here for seven years.”
Pifer said the average turnaround on a burglary, theft or other property crime without a suspect is two years. The same goes for cybercrimes.
Priority is given to homicides, sexual assaults, crimes involving juveniles and cases with defendants who have upcoming trials.
Keene police have all but stopped submitting evidence from misdemeanor crimes to the lab because they only have a year to make an arrest, and their chances of prosecution usually expire before the case is forensically analyzed, Lt. Peter S. Thomas said.
Most agencies opt to investigate minor crimes themselves, focusing on circumstantial evidence rather than forensics.
“It’s just a practicality for us,” Thomas said. “At that lab, they’re just so overwhelmed.”
The lab was only recently able to open an August 2005 home burglary case in Keene that had no suspects.
A criminalist lifted fingerprints from the scene that matched a suspect on a state database and an arrest was made last week, nearly three years after the crime.
“The lab is absolutely critical to our cases,” Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed said. “The reality is they just don’t have enough staff to keep up with the cases that we send there. They do their very best to keep up, but they just can’t.”
Staff and funding shortages have strained the lab, which employs 42 criminalists and serves more than 200 law enforcement agencies around the state, Pifer said. About half of the criminalists on staff are working an average of eight to 10 hours of overtime every week, he said.
And they’re barely making a dent: The backlogs remain as constant as the flow of fresh cases pouring into the lab every day.
The CSI effect
Advances in DNA testing and what Pifer calls the “CSI effect,” referring to the wildly popular television crime-investigation drama, have given some prosecutors unrealistic expectations of forensic labs.
They are submitting more evidence per case than ever before, Pifer said, because they’ve learned that DNA can be found on anything from a cigarette filter to a soda can.
Not so long ago, a typical homicide case contained about a dozen pieces of evidence for analysis, he said.
The average case today comes with 50 to 100 samples, and it’s not unusual to see more than 400.
“I feel that some of these cases are like, ‘Let’s Make A Deal,’ where we’re trying to find the least amount of evidence to prove or disprove a case,” Pifer said. “There might be 30 blood stains in a room and the lab wants to test two for a positive identification of a suspect. The prosecutors would love for us to test all 30.
“Now they’re bringing the whole room in,” he said. “They’re rolling up the carpet, loading up the furniture and it all comes here where we’ll have to reconstruct the entire scene.”
Some overworked crime labs – budget and staff problems are common in public labs across the country – have begun limiting the number of samples that can be submitted in a case, regardless of the crime, Pifer said.
The state lab in Florida, for example, only allows five pieces of evidence per case, even if it’s a homicide, which means prosecutors have to gamble on what they choose to submit for forensic analysis.
“I hope we will never get to that in this state,” Pifer said. “But this lab is overwhelmed with the volume of cases coming in. I do see at some point in the future looking at a potential reduction in services.”
Adding to the problem is that criminalists are finding themselves out of the lab and inside a courtroom more often now than ever before.
“Prosecutors want to put us on the stand today even if we didn’t find fingerprints or DNA on the evidence,” Pifer said. “They call us to court to tell jurors why we didn’t find that evidence. That wasn’t happening before shows like ‘CSI.’ “
Chipping away at backlog
The days of criminalists driving hours to testify for a matter of minutes on minor criminal cases in district court are quickly coming to a close in the Granite State.
At some point within the next two months, they will simply have to take a few steps out of the lab and enter a small room down the hallway. After testifying in front of a video camera connected to a statewide court network, they will head back to work, Pifer said.
The video-testimony system will not be used for jury trials where a criminalist’s presence is necessary, only in drug cases and other minor district court proceedings that have eaten up valuable lab time for years.
Last year, state criminalists spent 1,688 hours in court, or driving to and from court, because they were subpoenaed in drug and DWI cases, according to Pifer. And 85 percent of the time they ended up not having to testify, or were only on the stand for 10 minutes, he said.
The video-testimony equipment was purchased through a federal grant – as was nearly 90 percent of the lab’s equipment – and will tie into the courts’ existing video-arraignment systems.
In another state-of-the-art attempt to cut through the case backlog, the lab recently began using a remote viewing system that allows police officers to investigate cybercrimes from their own offices.
A typical cybercrime involves at least two computers and takes seven months to analyze. Criminalists have to make mirror images or bit-by-bit duplicates of the hard drives and then spend days sifting through the digital evidence, Pifer said.
Now, after the duplicate hard drive is created at the lab, it is uploaded onto a secure network that can be accessed by the police department handling the investigation.
As part of the N.H. Attorney General’s recent cybercrimes initiative, 75 police officers from 43 different departments, including the Keene Police Department, have been trained to investigate cybercrimes, said Lucy H. Carrillo, an assistant attorney general and Internet crimes prosecutor.
“Police departments can do some of the searching,” Carrillo said. “It vastly reduces the burden on the lab and shortens the length of time we can get to a case. Other states have expressed interest in the program.”
The hundreds of backlogged case files at the lab are troubling, but the situation hasn’t become critical just yet.
Delays at the lab have not resulted in dropped criminal cases or suspects being released from custody, Pifer said.
So far, the criminalists have been able to analyze evidence well in advance of upcoming trials, Pifer said.
“When we’re not picking up a case until a week before it goes to trial, then we’re critical,” he said. “When people know they’re getting away with crimes because of problems at the lab, then we’re critical.”
Of course, some crimes are being placed on the back burner and staying there for years, but there’s no other choice.
And the chances of shrinking that heaping backlog appear even more bleak as federal funding for state crime labs runs dry.
“These grants were meant as seed programs to get us and other public labs up to speed then sunset out,” Pifer said. “They were never meant to be a long-term supplement to state funding. Unfortunately, budget concerns in our state are at a bad time.”
While funds run thin, crime is growing across the state.
The lab received 829 criminal cases in January. It was the busiest month in recent history, according to Pifer.
“If we stay on that pace,” he said, “we’ll be in trouble.”