New Billings Facility to Lighten Caseload for State Crime Lab

Delays at lab have impacted investigations in Flathead County and across the state

By Justin Franz
Delays at the state crime lab continue to impact local cases but officials say the situation is better than it was a year ago. Beacon File Photo

A year after the Montana State Crime Laboratory was buried under a backlog of casework from across the state, the state’s top forensic administrator says the department is beginning to dig itself out.

Forensic Science Division Administrator Phil Kinsey said the opening of a satellite lab in Billings this month will help spread out the workload for the state’s forensic investigators that for years has all gone to a lab in Missoula.

A year ago, the lab was bending under the pressure of rapidly increasing casework submitted to it from law enforcement offices across the state. In 2010, the lab received about 5,300 cases, but by 2014 it had jumped to 8,100 cases. Last year saw a 10 percent increase over 2014, with the lab processing more than 8,800 cases. Drug investigations were especially delayed, which resulted in some cases nearly being thrown out because defendants could not get a speedy trial.

But Kinsey said case processing rates have increased since last year. In 2015, it could take up to eight months to get chemical tests done on drug samples, but now 95 percent of those cases are completed in less than four months.

“That’s a huge improvement,” he said.

Drug identification and processing will be a big part of what the three-person staff in Billings does when that lab opens this month. Kinsey said that should help lessen the load.

Local law enforcement agencies are starting to notice a quicker turn around from the crime lab.

“They’re making a valiant effort at the crime lab and (return times) have gotten a lot better,” said Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry. “It’s not perfect but it’s heading in the right direction.”

Curry said his office is still waiting on results from numerous cases at the state lab, including two on-going death investigations. On March 23, a woman’s body was found on a barge in Flathead Lake near Lakeside and on March 30 a 2-year-old girl died in Evergreen.

Kinsey said death investigations can take up to three months because they are so complex.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be no clear answer after an autopsy and sometimes you have to do additional testing,” he said. “We certainly understand the desire to have answers as soon as possible, especially for families and investigators, but sometimes that’s not possible.”

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