Timely lab testing could help courts in Forsyth County
FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Released from the Forsyth County Detention Center on a cold day, Dec. 8, 2011, Ryan Nicholas had a short-sleeve shirt on his back, the same spring shirt he was wearing when he was arrested April 8 that year in a no-knock drug raid launched by the Winston-Salem Police Department’s SWAT team, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
For eight months, Nicholas sat in jail on drug charges.
Prosecutors would ultimately drop all the charges against him because of insufficient evidence, but he stayed behind bars so long for two reasons: He could not afford to pay bond and the State Crime Lab took a very long time – longer than his eight-month stint – to test evidence that ultimately helped exonerate him.
“I was so glad to be out of there that I didn’t mind the cold,” Nicholas, 34, said last week. “It felt like eternity. Time lost its meaning to me in there. I’ve never felt so forgotten and unimportant – like a piece of garbage. How can we allow a system like this to exist?”
Nicholas could have gotten out sooner. Much sooner.
The evidence – a mushroom found in Nicholas’ room during the SWAT raid – would have been tested within five days had it been processed locally by a private company known as NMS Labs, based in Willow Grove, Penn., according to company officials.
“It’s crucial to get evidence moving efficiently for the justice system, to give them good information within a reasonable amount of time. Quality isn’t improved by having evidence sit in a room for months at a time,” Ron Fazio, vice president of NMS Labs’ testing product, Integrated Forensic Solutions, said in a phone interview.
As it turns out, NMS Labs has been in talks with local officials to open a crime lab here, according to Jim O’Neill, the Forsyth district attorney, and Lee Garrity, the city manager. If local money is approved, a local crime lab for drug and blood-alcohol tests could be up and running by the end of the year, officials said.
“It’ll vastly improve the turnaround time for justice,” Garrity said. “The state lab is so far behind on everything.”
The State Crime Lab analyzes a wide range of evidence collected at crime scenes, including drugs, DNA, firearms, fingerprints and blood-alcohol tests.
The main facility is in Raleigh and satellite labs are in Asheville and Greensboro. The 124 analysts at the Crime Lab worked more than 44,000 cases during the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the N.C. Department of Justice.
The testing backlog, a situation that has prompted DOJ officials to request more money from the General Assembly, has led other local governments to open their own crime labs. For example, Charlotte, Raleigh and Iredell County have their own labs.
If a local crime lab were to open here, O’Neill said it would perform drug and blood-alcohol tests that includes the type of test that could have expedited Nicholas’ case, or could determine whether driver got behind the wheel after drinking more than what the law allows – a blood-alcohol content of more than 0.08. Other evidence would still run through the State Crime Lab.
In the end, O’Neill said, having a local crime lab could come with many benefits.
Costs of running a local lab could be offset by charging surrounding counties that might be interested in having faster tests run here, he said.
It would be easier to have a forensic expert from a local lab testify in drug and DWI cases rather than have one come all the way from Raleigh.
And not only would it expedite cases for those who may be wrongfully accused, it would also move along cases for everyone at a faster rate. That, in turn, would lower the jail population, O’Neill said, noting that jail costs could come down if the number of inmates comes down.
“We wouldn’t have to house those people,” he said.
NMS Labs has a long list of permits, approvals and accreditations, including some from the College of American Pathologists International Standards, from state departments of health in Pennsylvania, New York and California, and as well as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Ken Tisdale, a Winston-Salem defense attorney, said he would use NMS Labs because the company has credibility with Andrew Mason, a forensic expert in Boone who, O’Neill and Tisdale said, is widely respected by both prosecutors and defense attorneys. Getting cases moving is something both sides want.
“I’ve tried cases this year from 2011,” Tisdale said.
Under the NMS Labs business model, there would be no standard startup cost, Fazio said. The company would provide the equipment and the lab workers, in this case, two or three employees.
The cost would be around $1,000 a month, Garrity said.
Space for the lab could be found in the city’s Beaty Public Safety Training and Safety Center, Garrity said.
The proposal will head to the Winston-Salem City Council’s public safety and finance committees over the next few weeks, he said. If the full council were to approve money by Sept. 1, for example, a lab could be operating here within 90 days, company officials said, or by the end of November.
The city may also work with High Point to bring the crime lab here, Garrity said.
Bob Morgan, High Point’s interim assistant city manager, said that the city has not made a decision yet. Discussions with other vendors are underway, he said, and he was not aware of any set budget for the project.
“It’s going to be a decision we take very seriously,” he said.
So far, the county, city and district attorney’s office have been talking about the possibility of a crime lab coming here, but the county has not received any requests for money, said Dudley Watts, the county manager.
“The delays at the State Crime Lab have made things very difficult,” he said. “I would hope that the state would improve that system so that there would not have to be a local response to what is supposed to be a state responsibility.”