The forensic scientists charged with analyzing S.C. crime scene DNA evidence are overworked, forced to rush cases and have reached their “breaking point,” a self-described “worn-out” employee of the State Law Enforcement Division says.
That employee, SLED DNA analyst Jennifer Clayton, emailed lawmakers Monday as the S.C. House began its debate on how to spend about $9 billion in state money. She urged them to give the agency enough money to hire additional analysts to combat a backlog of cases she said is forcing analysts to do rush jobs.
“One of the greatest frustrations of battling this constantly growing backlog is that we know justice is being delayed for victims and their families,” Clayton, a 16-year veteran at SLED, wrote in the email, provided to The State.
“We are now, however, reaching our breaking point. We do not have anywhere near the staffing level we need to cope with the casework demands that are being placed upon us,” she said.
Since 2010, SLED has had a backlog of 4,839 cases awaiting DNA processing — about half of which are nonviolent crimes, SLED Chief Mark Keel told The State on Monday. Not all of those cases will require analysis because they have been dismissed or the suspect pleaded guilty to a crime, he said.
However, the demand on SLED to process evidence from law enforcement agencies across the state continues to grow, totaling about 20,000 pieces of evidence each year, he added.
“We have, again, a huge number of cases that come into our laboratory,” Keel said. The effect of that demand, he added, is the agency is forced to bump cases to the back burner as other crimes take priority, creating backlogs in every division.
In its budget request, SLED asked for $587,323 to hire eight new positions in its forensics lab, including three DNA caseworkers and three forensic technicians. However, the S.C. House’s proposed budget, being debated on the floor this week, did not include money to fill the staffing request.
The House proposal does include $814,413 for law enforcement rank changes. But that money can’t be used to hire lab staff, Keel said.
House budget chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, on Monday acknowledged a backlog can create serious problems.
“I get it. I’m an attorney, and it also creates delays in hearings, trials,” Smith said.
But, he noted, the General Assembly gave SLED $54 million last year to build a new forensics lab, a request that spurred heated debate.
“The Legislature, obviously, has worked with us and has been excellent to provide the resources we need to meet the needs of law enforcement in South Carolina,” Keel said.
To help reduce the forensic lab backlog, SLED could use $1.5 million in federal dollars designated for meth lab cleanups to hire five full-time equivalent positions, Keel said. That is in addition to another five unfunded full-time positions that could be paid for by not filling other vacant positions.
Keel also said the agency has been using about $500,000 a year in federal money to pay overtime to reduce the backlog and outsource cases related to property crimes. He said many analysts regularly volunteer to work overtime.
Of the more than 4,000 backlogged cases, about 25 percent involve “touch DNA,” small samples such as skin cells left on an object after it has been touched or casually handled, Keel said. SLED prioritizes those cases with quality DNA evidence, as opposed to evidence that is unlikely to provide usable DNA information to create a profile.
The agency also prioritizes violent crimes, including sexual assaults, and cases set for trial, Keel said.
“If we have any case that needs to be rushed, whether a serial type crime in the community and have someone on the street we need to get off the street — or a case set for trial — we’ll take it out of the stack and put it to the top and assign a forensic scientist to work it and complete it.”
Despite efforts to make the lab’s work more efficient, “our (SLED’s) backlog continues to grow,” Clayton said in her email to lawmakers.
Writing as a “concerned citizen” and a “worn-out” state employee, Clayton estimated that it would take hiring two or three analysts a year for at least the next five years to “get us to the staffing level we need to provide a 30-day turnaround on every case coming in the door.”
Clayton also thanked lawmakers for approving money for a new SLED lab.
“It will be nice to finally be in a building where we do not have to worry about water leaking onto our $100,000 instruments” or shifts in room temperature that “adversely affect” the instruments’ performance.
Reached Monday by The State, Clayton said she knows the state budget is “tight every year” with “only so much money to go around.”
Regardless of the outcome of the budget debate, she said she’s confident her department “will continue to put out nothing but the highest quality work.”
Keel said he appreciated Clayton’s effort to advocate for SLED, a job he sees as his own.
“It was well-intended on her part,” he said, adding he was surprised when he found out she had sent the email to lawmakers. ”[S]he was trying to help the cause, but the General Assembly looks to me to make those decisions and to hear from.”
Reporter John Monk contributed.