- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

BEND, Ore. (AP) - An audit of Oregon State Police crime labs points to a growing backlog of evidence waiting to be tested.

Auditors with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office found it takes an average of 65 days to complete testing on a submitted piece of evidence, while the number of cases in which it takes at least 30 days to complete testing has jumped 90 percent since 2005.

The backlog is in significant part due to the growth in the amount of evidence submitted to the labs for testing. From 2005 to 2014, requests for testing have jumped 31 percent, while staffing levels at the labs has remained largely flat.

The labs perform a variety of testing services, including analyzing fingerprints lifted from crime scenes, DNA testing and tests to identify suspected drugs and other substances.

The OSP’s five crime labs in Bend, Clackamas, Central Point, Pendleton and Springfield employ 127 people and received 29,500 requests for testing in 2014. A sixth crime lab, in Ontario, was closed in 2011.

Recent allegations concerning the mishandling of evidence at the Bend crime lab does not appear to be a factor in the audit’s findings, said Molly Woon, spokeswoman with the Secretary of State’s office.

Forensic analyst Nika Larsen, who worked at the Pendleton lab before moving to the Bend lab in 2012, is suspected of skimming drugs from samples submitted for testing. Larsen was placed on paid leave this fall, and both labs have suspended drug testing. Larsen has not been charged with any crimes.

Woon said the audit was substantially complete before the allegations against Larsen came to light, and while the suspension of drug testing at the Bend and Pendleton labs is not a likely factor in the backlog identified through the audit, it’s likely exacerbated the backlog in recent months.

The audit identifies a number of ways the crime labs could become more efficient. The labs could do a better job transferring work among themselves - currently, the labs primarily serve the agencies in their parts of the state - and tracking the handling of individual pieces of evidence though the use of electronic note-taking.

Communication between the labs and the agencies sending them materials for testing could also be improved, the audit stated. Testing of evidence often continues even after a local district attorney’s office has decided to drop charges, or after a suspect has pleaded guilty, according to the report, and law enforcement officers will sometimes submit more evidence for testing than necessary, or file incomplete or unclear requests for testing.

Woon said auditors did not receive any information breaking down the number of requests for evidence testing by agency. Approximately 90 percent of the evidence handled by state crime labs is submitted by city and county law enforcement agencies, with the remainder coming from OSP. The labs do not charge local law enforcement agencies for their services.

The audit anticipates the labs’ workload could increase further in the near future due to two relatively recent developments. The state’s legalization of recreational marijuana use may lead to an uptick in testing blood and urine samples to identify intoxicated drivers, and a 2015 measure approved by the Legislature will provide more opportunities for convicted people to request DNA testing of evidence that might exonerate them.

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Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com


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