PORT ANGELES — Several local governments on the North Olympic Peninsula have asked the Legislature to help address a backlog at the State Patrol crime and toxicology labs.
The Port Angeles City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to pass a resolution asking lawmakers to fully fund the five State Patrol crime labs and one toxicology lab to speed up the administration of justice.
“This is part of an ongoing effort to keep this as a priority matter in the eyes of the Legislature,” Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney/Ex-Officio Coroner Mark Nichols told the Port Angeles City Council on Tuesday.
Jefferson County commissioners passed a similar resolution March 9.
Nichols said the Sequim and Forks city councils also had approved resolutions on this topic, and Clallam County commissioners are expected to consider Nichols’ proposal Tuesday.
“I’m certain that we would be supportive and want to help build a longer-term strategy,” Commissioner Mark Ozias said in a March 9 work session.
Nichols said the Legislature recently appropriated new funds to the State Patrol toxicology lab, which tests blood samples from suspects for controlled substances.
The crime lab division — which provides a range of scientific evidence testing at multi-service facilities in Seattle, Tacoma, Marysville, Spokane and Vancouver — was “still suffering from a series of backlogs,” Nichols said.
“Unbeknownst to I think the traveling public is that there’s a significant resource crisis at these labs, and it is having profound trickle-down impacts to certainly Clallam County, but I would submit other county governments across the state,” Nichols told county commissioners.
Several murder trials in Clallam County have been delayed by scientific evidence testing.
Dennis Marvin Bauer, a suspect in a triple homicide that occurred east of Port Angeles in December 2018, had his trial reset last month to Jan. 4, 2021 because of testing delays at the state crime lab.
Matthew Timothy Wetherington, who allegedly killed his wife and her three children and burned their Port Angeles trailer last July, had his trial continued to Oct. 5 because of DNA testing delays.
“If you sit through our courts on the second floor of our courthouse, and I would submit in other counties across the state, what you’ll hear is discussion about a great many cases needing to be continued because we’re awaiting results from either one of the crime lab divisions or from the toxicology lab,” Nichols said.
“So it’s slowing down the administration of justice.”
The average turnaround time for crime lab testing is five to seven months, Nichols said. He added that the backlogs had become worse in recent years.
“If we don’t do anything, I don’t think there’s any reason to expect there’s going to be any change,” Nichols said.
“This is a good way to lead by example.”
Port Angeles Chief of Police Brian Smith said the council resolution was the “best way for the Legislature to hear from local and county elected bodies on the challenges we face right now.”
State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said the Legislature recently approved new funding for the State Patrol toxicology lab.
“It’s been a huge priority for a number of us and certainly the State Patrol,” Chapman said in a Thursday interview.
“I know we significantly increased their funding and made that a priority. These new funds will just a take a little bit of time to work through the system.”
Chapman, a former law enforcement officer and Clallam County commissioner, said the Legislature provided funding for the State Patrol to work through a backlog of sexual assault test kits.
Nichols agreed that the state had addressed the sexual assault kit backlog.
“That was perceived to be unacceptable a few years back, and so the Legislature went about addressing that discrete issue and I think they did good work,” Nichols said.
Nichols said backlogs remained at the crime labs, which provide DNA, firearms and other scientific evidence testing for coroners, law enforcement and prosecutors.
Said Chapman: ”I did not hear from the State Patrol that they were unsatisfied with our budget.”
Nichols said the scientists at the State Patrol crimes labs have not been able to keep up with demand.
“There’s far too much work being sent their way and not enough resource to timely process it,” Nichols said.
The crime labs test things like bullet casings, edged weapons and DNA from murder scenes.
“Collectively, these labs are very important with respect to the forensic testing that they do for law enforcement,” Nichols said.
“And in the world of prosecution, it’s very important for us to receive back timely results.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].