Crime lab debate misses the point and culprits

From The Fayetteville Observer

The state crime lab has been a political football for a long time now, so we probably should be accustomed to this. But seeing it explode again, this time as an issue in the gubernatorial election, is just too much.

Gov. Pat McCrory is attacking his November opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, for some very real problems with the lab, including the misrepresentation of test results that could have helped defendants, and years-long backlogs in getting test results back to prosecutors. The problems, the McCrory campaign says, wasn’t even made public until an outside review of the lab’s performance was ordered.

McCrory is leaving out three key points: Cooper ordered the review, and most of the egregious cases at the lab happened before Cooper became attorney general. And all of it is old news.

Even though they know better, some sheriffs have lined up with the governor on this one. That’s a mistake, because this should never have been a political issue anyway.

If someone wants to point a finger in the right direction, it should be toward the General Assembly, which for decades had underfunded the crime lab and left it poorly staffed and equipped, hopelessly incapable of keeping up with the demand from police departments, sheriff’s offices and county prosecutors. It took a public shaming to get lawmakers to adequately budget for a lab that meets the state’s needs.

And in truth, the lab still isn’t up to the challenge. That’s why many North Carolina cities, including Fayetteville last year, have dug into their pockets to set up their own crime labs. The alternative was watching rape kits go untested and driving-under-the-influence suspects keep repeating their crimes while their blood tests sat on a shelf at the state lab.

Last spring, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office reported that it eliminated a 546-case backlog and was now getting test results back within a week, compared with waits of up to two years from the state crime lab.

That’s good reason why there should be more local crime labs like ours, or regional labs to serve multiple rural counties. And the state should foot the bill, just as it supports the court system and prosecutors. It’s clear that the state crime lab can’t meet demands placed on it.

And it’s also clear that the lab shouldn’t be a political football any longer. We hope the governor will get back to debating substantive issues with Cooper and stop tossing smelly red herrings.

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