GBI lab doing more with less

CONYERS -- Georgia Bureau of Investigations officials said the GBI crime lab has sometimes become the "whipping boy" for local law enforcement, but the lab staff is doing more with less.

"We're combating the anecdotal examples of delays in the crime lab. There have been some, but the lab isn't in a meltdown," said GBI director Vernon Keenan.

Keenan explained Friday afternoon during a tour of the lab for news media that the lab is operating on marginal staff and navigating through the closure of three regional offices because of budget shortages. However, the lab is willing to work with local agencies to cut down on delays in processing evidence. Keenan said a two-week turnaround in processing evidence is possible if local judicial officials request the evidence to be expedited. The lab is willing to "stop the assembly line of cases," and handle a expedited request as a priority, the director said.

Keenan said more than 80 percent of crime lab reports are done in 90 days, though there is still some backlog, particularly in processing firearm evidence. GBI recently hired more firearm examiners and Keenan expects the backlog to go down.

Georgia law requires autopsies to be done in unexpected and unattended deaths. Keenan reported that 62 percent of autopsy results are released within 90 days. The medical examiner division, which handles autopsy reports, are prioritized before drug enforcement, fingerprinting and firearms.

"We know the problem this has on families when they're trying to get death certificates ... and we expedite those cases if the science will permit it," Keenan said.

Keenan told the group DNA evidence has been a major breakthrough in criminal investigations.

The GBI began DNA testing in 1991 and implemented its Combined DNA Index System in 1998. At that time under state law, only those convicted and incarcerated for sex offenses were included in the database. The Georgia General Assembly expanded the DNA database in 2000 to include all incarcerated convicted felons.

In 2007, the legislature expanded the DNA database statute to include individuals convicted of certain felonies.

Those DNA collections often help break rape and sexual assault cases, according to Keenan, even though the initial conviction was for another sort of crime. Keenan said in most cases a person will not "just jump up and do a violent crime," but those felons are usually already in the system for lesser crimes.

While crime across the state has gone down, Keenan added that "the amount of viciousness," and the level of violence in crimes has escalated. The lab is also seeing more crimes with multiple victims.

"Where we used to have someone murdered in a domestic type situation, now the perpetrator will kill his wife or girlfriend and everyone in the house," Keenan said. "Instead of shooting the victim one time, they'll shoot them multiple times, then set them on fire."

Keenan also described a sort of evolution in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs.

"Atlanta has become the hub for the Mexican drug cartel and their distribution of drugs across the Southeast and they brought the violence with them," Keenan said.