The horrific murder of Columbia County mother Andrya Deghelder has brought back into focus one of Georgia’s greatest and most maddening disgraces: the totally understaffed and overwhelmed state crime lab. It is an issue I have been complaining about for years, but unlike many other far more complex problems, it is a crisis that can be solved with the stroke of a pen.
Virtually 100 percent of the crime lab problems can be fixed by increased funding.
Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen tells me he is currently waiting on lab reports for deaths that occurred back in March, and he estimates that number of cases at 40. Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins handles fewer cases, of course, but he deals with the same problem. He sets his backlog at 14, dating back to April. Every coroner in Georgia deals with it. That means hundreds and hundreds of families have no clue exactly why their child died suddenly, what happened to their beloved brother, what it was that killed their sister, or how their apparently healthy 60-year-old spouse dropped dead from what could have been food poisoning, an allergic reaction, an accidental drug overdose, or radiation exposure.
Understand how this is a problem? And it has been a problem for a long time. Way too long!
Physical autopsies, which (thank God) are being done in a timely manner, can determine certain physical causes of natural or violent death, but the blood and body fluids tests, which are most often needed in such cases, always have a four- to six-month backlog.
It is so bad that Bowen has asked permission in the past to send such tests to an out-of-state lab, so loved ones and law enforcement officers get those results back in days, and not half a year later. Permission to bypass the Georgia Crime Lab would have to be granted by the state legislature, but here is a novel idea: let’s fix the damn lab and get it done here!
In the still-unsolved Deghelder homicide, while the cause of death was immediately determined at her initial autopsy, there are still lab tests associated with the collected physical evidence in the case that may not be back for months. Not only are tests involving natural deaths and homicides delayed, but so are virtually all kinds of lab work done in a variety of criminal investigations.
I am told the state lab doesn’t pay enough to keep certified personnel in place, and that they are under manned even when they have a” full compliment” of techs,. Simply put, they need more. The state of Georgia can spend money on everything from school band uniforms to inauguration party security costs, but they can’t seem to figure out how to properly recruit and keep a few dozen lab techs who do nothing but run toxicology (and other) tests. These blood tests can be knocked out by a qualified employee in usually an hour or two. The problem, of course, is that backlogged cases are stacked six months high in que, and there is no move to change that dynamic anytime soon. The few techs they have in place stay busy all day, every day.
So the problem has been identified. Money rarely fixes major problems in our public safety system, but this is not one of those occasions. All we lack is the political will among our elected officials to get this done. Not a soul in this state will object to the cost, whatever it takes.
If you know a family that has been affected by these hideous time lags, and Lord knows I do, you understand how this issue should be a priority for all citizens of conscience.
I have proposed that we secure adequate funding through a surcharge that would accompany every criminal fine, traffic ticket and parking citation written in the state of Georgia. From $5 to $20 a pop … whatever it takes. With the state’s largest medical college in our own backyard, it is a travesty that we haven’t seen an academic solution proposed for this perpetual headache involving the shortage of technicians and medical examiners. Something along the lines of fellowships or perhaps student debt forgiveness for those who pledge a certain amount of time in service back to the state.
We have the brightest medical minds in the Southeast right here; we can solve this problem!
The Republicans that have been in charge of business in Georgia for the last 13 years have no excuse in the world as to how they let this problem go unchecked, but it has happened under their watch, and it seems to be getting worse as each year passes. We need to make the crime lab crisis a priority for those on the campaign trail, and a mission all of us need to see through to solution.