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Posted: March 3, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Inside the GBI

By Amber Pittman/

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is oft accused of being the reason why investigators can’t pinpoint suspects and why evidence isn’t processed in time for court, but according to a report given to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a mere 5 percent of crime lab reports take the GBI more then 180 days, with 88 percent of reports being issued in 90 days or less.

"88 percent in 90 days ain’t damn bad work," said GBI Director Vernon Keenan.

The crime lab is responsible for a variety of reports generated to local law enforcement agencies, including toxicology, trace evidence, firearms and autopsies in certain deaths such as murders. In Newton County, evidence from both the Alvin Hall murder and the Andrew Nichols murder has been taken to the GBI for processing.

Like many other state-funded agencies, the GBI has faced recent budgetary cuts. Three crime labs around the state will be shut down and there is a lack of staff in certain areas as well, many times any backlog the GBI experiences in their services are directly related to a lack of staff.

However, there are 274 positions filled at the crime lab, including 136 scientists (42 of which are grant-funded), 14 medical examiners and 97 technicians, investigators and

support staff.

"Many times the GBI becomes a whipping boy," said Keenan, saying that instead of law enforcement saying they are stymied on a case or prosecutors admitting they were disinclined to work a case, they point the finger at the GBI, accusing them of not getting them the information needed in a timely manner. Keenan called their bluff, saying that the crime lab could do priority tests on certain evidence, but only if they were told it was needed.

The average days to issue crime reports can range from 27 days for a blood alcohol level toxicology report to 104 days for forensic biology such as DNA. The biggest hold-up is in firearms tests which, on average, take 245 days. According to the report since March of 2009 the firearms group has worked primarily priority requests for court or investigative purposes but once issued to a scientist, the average turn-around time for a firearm report was four days.

There are more then 29,500 crime services pending at the crime lab, 27,797 in chemistry, 1,041 in firearms, 469 in latent prints and 202 in trace evidence, but according to Keenan a service can be described as pending if the analysis has been postponed until word from the submitting agency that the information is needed. For example, if a report isn’t needed until a case makes its way to trial – which could take several months – then scientists will wait to do that until it is needed. Keenan said that producing reports that may not be needed down the line is a waste of resources.

In the state there are 14 medical examiners, 11 pathology assistants and four support staff for the GBI. The average caseload per doctor is anywhere from 250-275 autopsies a year. The ME’s office also operates the Child Abuse Investigative Support Center which assists the Department of Family and Children Services with child abuse investigations.

Between July 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2009 there were 1,464 autopsy reports generated from the crime lab. Twelve percent took 30 days or less and 3 percent took 181 days or more; the majority of reports were issued 61-90 days (31 percent). In the first six months of Fiscal Year 2010, 62 percent of all autopsy reports were released within 90 days and 87 percent within 120 days. Doctors perform approximately seven autopsies a day.

"Delays in autopsy reports are not staffing," explained Keenan. "Some of the tests required to determine the cause of death take several weeks. We expedite cases if science will permit it."

Twenty percent of deaths between 2007-2008 were drug related, with 67 percent of those deaths being prescription drug related; 15 percent illicit drug-related; and 18 percent a combination of the two. According to Keenan they routinely see between six and eight different drugs in a person’s system at the time of autopsy, which can hold up reports because of the time it takes to sort through and identify all of those drugs.

The most common prescription drugs are Methadone (375), Xanax (345); Hydrocodone (224); and Oxycodone (202). The most common illicit drugs are cocaine (145); Methamphetamine (35); Heroin (10); and Amphetamine (3).

The GBI is also responsible for the sex offender registry, which has 18,000 names on it.

"The only Web site that gets more hits is the Georgia Lottery," said Keenan.

The GBI’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit was number one in the nation last year and three to five times a week their mobile bomb unit goes out to investigate, making it one of the busiest in the state. Keenan was quick to point out that Georgia was no worse then any other state in bomb issues but that there was a state-wide unit available.

The GBI also keeps the CODIS database up to date for the state. The Combined DNA Index System houses DNA profiles from offenders convicted of particular crimes, and has been instrumental in solving 694 rapes and 668 burglaries where DNA profiles are left behind.

According to Keenan, though the crime lab may see cuts, the level of violence and viciousness in murders has escalated. Atlanta has also become the hub for the Mexican drug cartel, who Keenan said "brought the violence with them."

The GBI was told to prepare for cuts, which could include special agents loosing their jobs, on top of the three crime labs shutting.

"What will come out of this I don’t know," said Keenan, "but it’s Draconian."

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