Justice delayed? A look at the Vermont Forensic Lab's backlog
A national news report earlier this year highlighted Vermont as one of several states significantly behind on testing evidence in criminal cases. We wanted to find out why Vermont is on that list and if the backlog is leading to justice delayed or justice denied. Our Dom Amato spoke with the director of Vermont's Forensic Lab to get answers.
We learned there are backlogs of evidence at the state crime lab but that has not necessarily impacted cases. And in one key area-- DNA testing-- the lab has trimmed its backlog from years to weeks.
How they got there requires a little history lesson. It starts with the 1991 murder of Patty Scoville in Stowe. To help find her killer, Scoville's parents convinced the state to create a DNA database. The crime lab amassed thousands of samples from convicted felons. That backlog took years to process but finally led to a match and the arrest of Howard Godfrey.
"We were working through those, and working through those, and lo and behold, Howard's sample ended up matching to Patty's case. So we ended up solving it through the database that her parents championed," said Trisha Conti, the director of the Vermont Forensic Lab. "It was a fantastic story and our DNA database is actually dedicated in her honor because it probably wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the effort of her parents."
It still took four years from the time Godfrey's DNA sample was taken to the time the lab tested it and made a match to the Scoville evidence. So we wanted to know if there is still a backlog of evidence today and if that is keeping other cases from being cracked.
I took a tour of the Vermont Forensic Lab and spoke with its director about the progress they have made.
"Anytime there's a crime happens in Vermont and there's evidence collected, it comes to us for analysis," Conti said.
Every new felony conviction adds another new DNA sample to the workload. But Conti says the backlog on those is down to just four to six weeks. Other evidence, however, sits on shelves waiting to be tested.
"Some sections we essentially don't have a backlog, as soon as things come in they get worked. We have other sections that, based on types of testing or personnel resources, we may have backlogs that are several years long," Conti explained.
They prioritize crimes with a greater investigatory need like sexual assault and homicide cases.
"We move when a test result comes in for one certain case and then jump on that and see what we can do with that result," said Maj. Dan Trudeau of the Vermont State Police Major Crime Unit.
Trudeau says he's thankful the lab pushes major cases to the front but due to the meticulous nature of testing evidence, the results often don't come quickly.
"It just takes time," he said. "It's not like what it is on TV. Oftentimes we're waiting for results that sometimes may take months. It's frustrating to us but we understand the procedure. But it's probably more frustrating for victims or families of victims."
With major crimes getting priority, other cases have to wait. Conti says most of the evidence waiting to be tested is in what they call a working backlog, where they are waiting for more information from police before moving forward with the tests.
The section with the largest backlog-- seized drug evidence.
"We have a backlog of about 800 cases which seems staggeringly large," Conti said.
In an exclusive look inside the storage room where drug evidence is kept, Conti told us most of it is just being held. State police bring their seized drugs to the lab first as part of their policy, and before the case heads to court, they'll pull it off the shelf to test.
"So it makes our backlog look very large but the actual cases which are needed to go to court are very minimal," Conti explained.
Delays in testing evidence can also harm criminal defendants who might be held in jail awaiting trial. Vermont's defender general says that hasn't been the case here.
Some defense lawyers and state police say the biggest delays they face are for searches of cellphones and computers that have to be outsourced and can take months to complete.