Michigan State Police crime lab backlogs shrink

Elaine Mallon
Capitol News Service

Lansing — More than 5,000 crime kits await testing by the Michigan State Police, but according to officials the backlog has shrunk dramatically. 

The MSP crime lab has drastically reduced its backlog, as well as forensic testing turnaround times. 

Testing backlogs have dropped 63% since 2016, according to a 2020 report by House Fiscal Agency analyst Marc Coffin.

In a House Appropriations Committee earlier this February, Rep. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, acknowledged the progress but said that backlogged forensic testing may leave an innocent person behind bars. 

More than 5,000 crime kits await testing by the Michigan State Police, but according to officials the backlog has shrunk dramatically.

The executive director of the crime lab Jeffrey Nye recently testified before the committee about improving turnaround times.

The backlog is one of the smallest in the past 25 years, Nye said. 

Nye attributed the smaller backlog to the legalization of marijuana because labs are no longer bogged down with testing in marijuana cases.

According to Nye, evidence classified as backlogged doesn’t mean it’s been sitting on a shelf for months or even years.

“A backlog has a negative connotation, and there is not a well-defined meaning as to what determines a case request as a backlog,” Nye said. “It’s not like a set standard that a case request awaits testing for greater than 30 days, or a case request greater than 90 days, is a backlog.”

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, the state police has improved testing turnaround time. 

For fiscal year 2020, the average turnaround time for a forensic testing request was 31 days, down from 44 days a year earlier, according to Coffin. 

In 2019, the crime lab completed 1,658 fewer forensic case tests than in 2020. 

A former forensic scientist at MSP's Metropolitan Detroit Forensics Crime Laboratory until 2017, Michael Kusluski, said that the reduced backlog may not reflect a reduction in evidence collected. 

“There are certain cases where evidence is going to be submitted, no matter what,” said Kusluski, who now teaches forensic science at Pennsylvania State University.

“Not every case is a homicide. Officers have discretion about whether to submit something, and if they feel like, they’re not going to get results back in a reasonable amount of time, they’re not going to bother submitting it,” he said.

“When I worked at the state police, there would be times when officers would say ‘we’re not going to submit this stuff because we know you guys are really busy,”’ Kusluski said. “There would be times where our backlog would go down, and we’d say ‘no, it’s okay, please submit.’”

East Lansing criminal defense lawyer Mike Nichols has experienced how awaiting a toxicology report impacted his clients’ cases.

“From my perspective, what’s frustrating for my clients is we get a trial date, we’re ready to go, our mindset is there,” Nichols said. “I’ve spent the time, which means I’ve spent my client’s money to prepare. 

“Then the day before or the day of the trial, I get a request to adjourn from a prosecutor because the prosecutor just realized that either an analyst isn’t available to testify or hasn’t done all of the necessary work that they’re looking for.”

According to Nye, State Police labs rely on a laboratory information management system that communicates case information within the labs, as well as to the court system.

“This system is woefully inadequate,” Kusluski said. “It’s out of date, and it’s to the point where I think it’s really affecting productivity and output.”

 Professor Anthony Flores of Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School said insufficient funding may be one reason for backlogs.

“I would say that it comes down to somewhat of a resource problem with the State Police,” said Flores, a former assistant prosecutor in Mecosta County.

“I really think it’s a combination of a steady amount of requests, and then the lab being overwhelmed. They can’t get it out in a timely manner, so I would think that’s why providing some resources to try to fix this problem is key,” he said.

However, Kusluski said the crime labs have always been well funded, and that there should be a greater separation between enlisted officers and laboratory administrative positions. 

“If you don’t have a science degree, you should not have ever been hired into the lab,” Kusluski said. “For the most part, they’re following a law enforcement model, and they have law enforcement officers making decisions on lab policies. 

“It’s really not the way that it should be.”

As assistant director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan's law school, Imran Syed investigates cases in search of evidence that could overturn wrongful convictions.

In his experience with the Detroit crime lab backlog crisis in 2009, there were many cases that never went to trial, he said. The Wayne County prosecutor’s office found over 11,000 untested rape kits in a Detroit Police Department storage facility. 

“Forensic evidence collected that’s never properly documented, or tested on time, can obviously interfere with a defendant’s right to a fair trial, but it can also interfere with victims’ rights to see justice in their cases,” Syed said. 

Nye said that while disagreements exist regarding the best course of action to maintain efficiency, disagreement regarding the lab’s reputation is not common.

“The forensic crime labs are an asset, and are something Michigan should be proud of,” Nye said. “Even though we carry a bit of a backlog, it’s quite lower than compared to other states. In addition, our quality of work is great. We provide a very vital service.”