DUIs. Overdoses. Murders. State crime lab bottleneck leaves Tri-City families in limbo

Toxicology testing backlog delays Benton Coroner death investigation cases

Deputy Coroner Bill Leach explains how the Benton County Coroner's Office has started sending blood samples for toxicology testing to a private lab because of a backlog at the state crime lab.
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Deputy Coroner Bill Leach explains how the Benton County Coroner's Office has started sending blood samples for toxicology testing to a private lab because of a backlog at the state crime lab.

A Prosser mother shot dead in February after a night of drinking with her best friend.

A Tri-City motorcyclist accused of speeding in May when he rear-ended another motorcycle, killing that rider.

And a troubled West Richland man killed by a SWAT sniper in June following a three-hour standoff in which the suspect held his girlfriend hostage.

All of these investigations have stalled at different levels in the process because their toxicology tests are outstanding.

The Washington State Patrol Toxicology Laboratory is in the midst of an immense backlog, and there appears to be no end in sight.

The Seattle-based lab performs drug and alcohol testing.

Tri-City coroners say the current turnaround on results is at least five months, while prosecutors point to even older criminal cases that essentially are in a holding pattern until they can get answers on crucial evidence.

Those cases range from driving under the influence and other drug- or alcohol-related crimes to the most serious — vehicular homicide and murder.

DUI testing on the rise

The lag time on testing is largely due to more blood samples being taken from DUI arrests because of the possibility of THC, since recreational marijuana became legal in Washington state in late 2012.

The Legislature approved funding for about a half-dozen toxicologists earlier this year, but it takes time to advertise, hire and train them at the one lab.

In the meantime, more and more samples come in daily from law enforcement agencies, coroners and medical examiners, and prosecutors throughout Washington’s 39 counties, along with the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.

The Benton and Franklin County coroner’s offices have tried to relieve the stress on families awaiting death certificates and law enforcement needing answers by diverting some blood samples in recent weeks to private accredited labs across the country. Those labs usually return results within two to three weeks.

However, it is an added expense to the office, and can be even pricier later for prosecutors who have to cover travel costs if those scientists need to testify in a criminal trial. So the coroners have been selective so far about which tests and how many get sent to private labs.

Coroner Toxicology Delays
The Benton County Coroner’s Office in Kennewick. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The five-month state delay is “causing families to not be able to get any death benefits, not be able to apply for social security benefits, and it affects their life insurance benefits that they’re applying for,” said Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel.

“The other problem is a lot of our homicide cases, and our overdose cases especially, are taking so long to get back that we have to sign the death certificate as pending. And again, it just puts the families into turmoil because they don’t have any closure, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

“It’s also affecting cases that have to go to trial for speedy trial. The prosecutors have to wait for those results to come back, and so it’s making a backlog in the courts as well,” he added.

The toxicology lab’s designated spokeswoman could not be reached Friday for comment on the backlog and what is being done to address it.

State money needed

The lab receives about 16,000 cases per year, the majority from law enforcement for DUI investigations, according to the lab’s website. The remaining 35 percent are coroner/medical examiner cases.

It has a total 23 managers and staff, including 14 forensic toxicologists who review each others’ work before results are sent and “spend an average of two days a week testifying in court as experts on alcohol, drugs and their effects,” the lab website states.

The Toxicology Lab is separate from the state patrol’s Crime Lab, which has multiple facilities across the state for DNA, firearms, chemistry and latent fingerprint testing, and to assist law enforcement at major crime scenes.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently announced that there are 6,460 sexual-assault evidence kits across the state currently untested. Ferguson said he is awaiting federal grant money to get that backlog cleared through the state crime lab.

As for the Toxicology Lab, Tri-City elected officials expect the bottleneck, and the need for temporary and permanent relief, to be a topic of at least two bills in the 2019 legislative session.

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said it was the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys’ top priority in the last session to get funding for 11 new toxicologists, though they ended up with half that number. He said the group again will lobby for more personnel to help test blood samples.

“The delays are just extremely frustrating all around, and I feel really bad for the families affected. These are serious homicide cases, but also it’s not good for our DUI prosecutions either,” said Miller. ‘We are glad the Legislature listened to (prosecutors) and agreed to increase the toxicology budget.

“We hope we see the results soon.”

Amanda Hill memorial.jpeg
Amanda L. Hill was shot dead last February after a night of drinking. The second-degree murder trial for her friend, Amy S. Brown, has been delayed to Jan. 7 while investigators await Hill’s toxicology results. File Tri-City Herald

Cases on hold, families frustrated

The second-degree murder trial for Amy S. Brown has been delayed to Jan. 7, in part because investigators have yet to receive toxicology results for victim Amanda L. Hill.

And while the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit has wrapped up its report into the officer-involved shooting of Doug Conner, a final determination on whether the SWAT sniper’s actions were justified can’t be made until the toxicology results come back to finalize the autopsy, said Miller.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said his caseload affected by the bottleneck includes the death of John C. Orozco Sr. on Glade North Road.

Doug Conner SWAT.jpeg
The Tri-City Special Investigations Unit has wrapped up its report into the June officer-involved fatal shooting of Doug Conner, but a final determination on whether the SWAT sniper’s actions were justified can’t be made until the toxicology results come back to finalize the autopsy. File Tri-City Herald

Sant explained that his office wants to review the toxicology results of Larry Pence, the motorcyclist who rear-ended Orozco’s own motorcycle, before deciding whether to file charges. Otherwise, if they charged Pence now based on what investigators found, the speedy trial clock would start and the case could move through the judicial system before the results are known.

“I can’t fault the state crime lab. I think they’re doing a great job with the numbers that they have,” he said.

Defense attorney Deric Orr said his Richland law firm has about a half-dozen cases that are dependent on outstanding toxicology reports as to whether or not the criminal charge is justified.

“Some of them have actually come back and exonerated our clients after being on pretrial conditions for months,” Orr said.

It can be difficult when a client has prior convictions or is charged with a serious crime, and they’re sitting in jail on high bail that whole time waiting on the questionable toxicology screens, he said.

Lawyers have to decide if they want to bring gamesmanship to get a rush on the evidence by stating that they’re ready for trial, and then maybe their tests get pushed to the front of the queue, said Orr.

Fatal motorcycle.jpeg
The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office is waiting on toxicology results before deciding whether to charge Larry Pence for a May 11 crash on Glade North Road that killed John C. Orozco Sr. File Tri-City Herald

“It’s just one of these things where it’s weighing the interest of pushing it vs playing ball, if you will,” he said. “And it’s definitely getting a little taxing at this point, and I know the prosecutors are frustrated.”

Sources of more funding

The Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners also plans to push its own bill for the Forensic Investigations Council — which oversees the forensic laboratory services budget — to reimburse counties for the cost of outsourcing blood samples in non-criminal cases to private labs.

Blasdel, vice president of the state association, said that would help relieve the state toxicology lab by removing those cases from the backlog.

But the issue at the state lab isn’t just the need for more toxicologists, but infrastructure, he said. “They’ve only got so many machines that they can run, so adding more bodies to the mix is not solving the problem because they can only run so many batches at a time.”

There is talk about creating regional toxicology labs, so all blood samples aren’t being sent to one place, but Blasdel said the funding for that proposal also would be up to the Legislature.

He suggested taking money from marijuana excise tax revenue since marijuana violations have contributed to the backlog.

“I think we’re going to get some positive results out of the Legislature this year because of this problem,” Blasdel said.

Local cases on hold

The Franklin County Coroner’s Office has at least one dozen cases awaiting toxicology results, and has sent a few to private labs at a cost of $300 each, he said.

Benton County has 39 cases pending toxicology. Samples from three or four of those cases have gone to a private lab in Pennsylvania, and the office has asked the state to return five or six others that are still in the queue so the tests can be expedited and cases closed out, said Deputy Coroner Bill Leach.

“Those cases could be anything from an autopsy to a motor vehicle accident where a driver or passenger died in the accident, to field investigations where we suspect drugs, or just because we felt we needed to do a toxicology on a field investigation,” said Leach, who handles the backlog issues for the county office.

The private lab testing is in the $250 to $300 range, he said, and currently is coming out of the coroner’s autopsy budget.

Both Blasdel and Leach said the state lab backlog is holding up a lot of death certificates because if it is a suspected drug- or alcohol-related death, they have to mark the cause of death as “pending.”

“We don’t want to put something on there that’s not true,” said Leach.

If the results come back positive, they will change the document to reflect an accidental death due to whatever the toxicity might be.

Loved ones need a finalized death certificate to get a life insurance payout, settle an estate or qualify for other benefits. And though they know nothing can be done at the local level, they’re frustrated at the lengthy delay for closure, said Blasdel and Leach.

“This isn’t the state patrol Toxicology Lab’s fault, or the state patrol’s or the coroner’s. This is the accumulation of a lot of stuff,” said Leach. “There’s just a whole lot of different outside influences that have created this backlog. Nobody should point fingers at anybody. They just need to learn how to fix the problem.”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer