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Working through the backlog: Wisconsin State Crime Lab faces challenges keeping up with influx of evidence

Local News

GREEN BAY, Wis (WFRV) – The downstairs of the Green Bay Police Department (GBPD) is largely dedicated to evidence.

“A general case that comes in, it’s still working its way through the court system, this is where it’s going to be,” Nate Kolinski, Evidence Tech for the City of Green Bay said while walking through one of the evidence rooms with Local 5 crew.

Those stacks of evidence are sometimes held in the GBPD basement for years.

“There are some that are older we’re still waiting to get through, but for the most part this is 2018 and newer,” Kolinski said, motioning toward a shelf.

Evidence from every case that comes in starts in a locker room.

“Officers are going to bring the evidence in, once they’ve collected it, and they test it, package it, right here,” Kolinski said, standing next to a row of lockers.

Eventually, it’ll join the years’ worth of evidence in storage.

“Now you’ll start to see a lot of older case numbers, we’ve got 2011, 2014, 2005, 2004, 1999,” Kolinski said, opening a door to reveal boxes of evidence from older cases. “A lot of this stuff is just sitting time. There’s nothing we can do, we just have to wait until they’re done to dispose of it, and we have to make sure it’s just as good as when it came in so if they file an appeal or something and they want it tested again because DNA’s come a long way since 2005 when that came in.”

Before evidence becomes a part of that waiting game in the storage rooms, it’s sent to one of three state crime labs: in Madison, Milwaukee, or Wausau.

“I would say 98 percent are probably felonies, but we do have those unique scenarios based on the circumstances in the case,” Nicole Roeh, Administrator for the Division of Forensic Sciences for the Wisconsin State Crime Lab said, “information from the law enforcement agency as well as the District Attorney’s office that we work with to determine whether or not the crime lab can assist.”

According to Roehm, the crime lab tries to test evidence on a first-come-first-serve basis; but there are caveats.

“If there’s a jury trial date, we will do everything to meet the trial date,” she explained, “so that might prioritize a case over something that might have come in earlier than it, as well as a public safety threat. If there is a public safety threat that’s happening, that will be prioritized over the first-come-first-served.”

Sgt. Nathan Borman with the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office says crime lab delays are an expected bump in the road.

“It does almost always delay the court proceedings,” he said. “If you can’t get the lab results, the court process can’t continue on. So those lab results are critical in order just for the court process to begin.”

Charges can be brought up without lab results, but Sgt. Borman says to proceed to trial or a plea bargain, lab results are needed.

That’s something he says the court is very aware of.

“The courts and the attorneys involved all are aware of delays, are aware of how long it takes to have these things processed,” Sgt. Borman said, “so the minute we have a case like that where these test results are expected, it’s pretty much assumed from the get-go.”

Back in the Green Bay Police Department basement, there’s a special tool that can help identify suspects in-house.

It’s called AFIS: Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

“It runs against all of the state fingerprint records, so all of Wisconsin is in there,” Baeleigh Larson, Forensic Specialist with the department said, “so it runs it against there, and then it’ll try to come back with any possible match hits. From there, then as an examiner, I would have to go through the possible match hits and determine if any of them are a hit.”

The GBPD is one of only four police agencies in the state with the system in-house.

“It’s still under the oversight of the AFIS Operations Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, who’s an employee of the crime lab,” Roehm said, “so what’s nice about that is it’s very consistent, whether it’s coming from the crime laboratory or one of those four agencies.”

Utilizing AFIS comes after evidence can help agencies speed up some of the testing that comes after evidence is collected.

“Typically we’ll get a walk-through of the scene, we’ll take photographs, sometimes we’ll also video the scene as well, we will collect evidence, as well as possibly swab for DNA and dust for fingerprints,” Kristen McMullen, a Forensic Specialist with the GBPD said.

Some categories of cases, like drunk driving incidents, have to go through the State Crime Lab.

“Trying to explain to a family whose loved one was just killed in a drunk driving crash, let’s say, you know, this court process is going to take well over a year, and part of the cause of that is the fact that the crime lab is going to take 6 to 8 months to get a result can be hard, that can be hard to hear,” Sgt. Borman said.

Courts were further delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and as they open back up, the State Crime Lab is working to keep up with demand.

“The courts have a huge backlog now that they need to work through,” Roehm said. “So that means we’re getting more involved and we’re getting more evidence submitted to the laboratories so we’re working through that.”

They’ll continue to work through the backlog while agencies like the Green Bay Police Department keep track of all that evidence.

“Pistols, handguns go in these, and then rifles, shotguns, long guns go in the big ones,” Kolinski said, motioning around yet another evidence storage room. As you can see, we have a lot. We’ve taken in about 100 guns this year so far.”

All that evidence will remain in storage until their cases come to a conclusion.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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