Nov 18, 2021 - COVID

Tennessee's lab workload woes

Data: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; Chart: Axios Visuals

Forensic scientists testing crime scene evidence for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation each handle an average of 382 cases per year, nearly a hundred more than their peers in Georgia.

  • The discrepancy between Tennessee and nearby states is even bigger, according to an internal review the TBI shared with Axios.
  • The review makes the case for the millions in new TBI funding that director David Rausch requested this month. Rausch told Gov. Bill Lee the money would pay for 40 new scientists, growing the existing roster by 38%.

Why it matters: As TBI scientists confronted a growing workload over the last decade, wait times for DNA tests and other evidence skyrocketed. Testing in some cases took more than nine months to complete during the 2019-20 fiscal year, the agency tells Axios.

  • The long turn-arounds slow down criminal cases, a fact that both prosecutors and defense attorneys find troubling.

Between the lines: In addition to addressing long wait times for evidence testing, Rausch told Lee the new staffing would help his agency with as many as 98,000 DNA samples that need to be collected from violent offenders and suspects.

How it works: Nashville police handle most testing for criminal cases in Davidson County. The TBI is on the hook for the state’s 94 other counties, as well as some work in Nashville.

  • Lebanon defense attorney Jeff Cherry says he's waited more than six months for cases to proceed.
  • "You're just stuck in a holding pattern because they can't get all of the evidence back," Cherry tells Axios.

What they're saying: Williamson County District Attorney Kim Helper tells Axios case delays are "concerning to me and certainly concerning to victims as well."

  • "It is a concern to ensure that defendants and victims are getting their day in court."

Meanwhile: Helper said several agencies within the criminal justice system, including her own, were under strain due to limited staffing.

  • "I hope TBI gets the resources they need, but I think there are others that are in that position as well."

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