CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation says he expects that the recent decision to stop performing tests of some types of evidence at the state crime lab in Cheyenne in response to state budget cuts won’t have a large effect on criminal prosecutions in the state.
DCI Director Steve Woodson said in a recent interview that the budget cuts have forced the lab to halt analysis of many forms of so-called trace evidence, including hair and fiber samples. He also said the lab will no longer make gun-shot residue tests a priority while it increasingly focuses on processing DNA evidence.
Most of the requests the crime lab receives from prosecutors around the state are for DNA analysis, Woodson said. “I honestly think that it will have very limited if any impact on a prosecutorial decision,” he said of discontinuing tests on the other forms of evidence.
Woodson said his agency will direct prosecutors to other laboratories to perform trace evidence tests if they appear crucial in an important case.
Casper District Attorney Mike Blonigen said Thursday he believes the decision to stop testing some types of evidence at the DCI lab will hinder both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Blonigen said the changes at the lab won’t affect what he called “smoking-gun evidence,” meaning fingerprints and DNA.
“But what we’ll lose is an opportunity for some good corroborating evidence,” Blonigen said. “Lots of times, DNA just doesn’t do what you need it to do. For instance, gunshot residue: it doesn’t tell us who fired a gun, despite what Hollywood might want to tell you. But it says you were in the vicinity of where a gun was fired. That can be important say in self-defense cases, things like that.”
Blonigen said the cuts at the crime lab make it clear that Wyoming isn’t making criminal justice a priority. He emphasized that the lab doesn’t only work for prosecutors, but performs tests for public defenders as well.
“Anytime you undermine the ability to gather evidence and evaluate that evidence, it hurts both sides because it deprives you of facts, objective facts particularly,” Blonigen said. “Forensic evidence is objective fact. And if both sides don’t have fair and equal opportunity to pursue that, you undermine the quality of justice in your community.”
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead in June announced $248 million in cuts from state agency budgets over the two-year funding cycle that started this month because of falling energy revenue. He warned that the shortfall ultimately could exceed $500 million and that more cuts may be required.
The DCI lab saw its total $6.1-million budget for the current two-year funding cycle reduced by 4.6 percent under the cuts Mead announced last month. Woodson said DCI, which is under the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, was forced to respond to the cuts by eliminating some positions and reassigning others.
Woodson said the lab received seven requests for hair and fiber physical match comparisons from July 2015 through this June. Meanwhile, he said the lab has 248 open requests for DNA analysis. Of those pending DNA requests, he said 73 concern sex offense investigations; 26 are for homicide or questionable death investigations; 14 for controlled substances; and 135 are for property crimes or burglaries.
“The DNA is where we get the most requests from, it just continues to increase, and so we needed to try to augment that service there,” Woodson said.
Woodson said the lab will still have the ability to perform gunshot residue tests, but won’t make them a priority. In a recent letter to state prosecutors alerting them of the changes at the lab, he stated gunshot residue tests are likely to take a long time to complete.
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