Thousands in limbo waiting on lab results

Thousands in limbo waiting on lab results (WPMI)

You're innocent until proven guilty. But tonight thousands of people who say they're innocent sit in jail waiting for their day in court. Many of those cases hinge on one key piece of evidence, and the testing can take years as NBC 15's Andrea Ramey uncovers in tonight's Reality Check.

Drug cases in Alabama can drag on for years as both investigators and defendants wait for a piece of paper: the lab report from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. It confirms what the substance is defendants are caught with when arrested.

"You just can't imagine what it would be like to be locked up in a county jail for a couple of years simply because you're waiting on a report," said defense attorney Chase Dearman.

In February 2015 Justin Maulden was caught with what police said was synthetic marijuana or spice. The lab report in his case was finally returned last month, more than two and half years later. It's not the only example. Another case, the state vs. Huang also took more than two years to get state lab results. Reviews of other cases found results took anywhere from a year to 20 months.

"Would you like to have felony charges hanging over your head for a period of 3-5 years," said Dearman.

Part of the problem, the state says, is there are at least 400 different chemicals or drugs being used in synthetic marijuana. So testing can be like a research project to confirm the substance.

Cases have dragged on so long in some instances, attorneys we spoke with say, judges have dismissed them .

"Years can go by," said defense attorney Jeremiah Giles. "It's hard to tell a client I don't have an update for you."

In the hands of narcotics investigators at the Mobile County Sheriff's Office is a possible solution. In under two minutes, a TruNarc handheld narcotics analyzer can accurately determine what the substance is.

"The test results are almost immediate," said Lt. Rassie Smith.

But right now in Alabama, the results aren't being used much in court. In other states, like Missouri, these reports are frequently used in court. One prosecutor there told NBC 15, TruNarc eliminated their backlog of drug cases.

"It's a great tool," said Smith.

The current backlog in Alabama is over a years’ worth of drug cases, 38,000 cases all in limbo waiting on lab results.

"Simply put, if the state of Alabama is going to lock up their citizens for suspected drug crimes, they need to pay the money to produce the system so it can support their constitutional rights," said Dearman.

The director of ADFS says deep budget cuts in 2009 and lab closures in 2011 meant more than half the chemists were eliminated. They're just now back up to almost full staffing, with 8 more chemists being trained right now to address the current backlog.