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Fatal Accidents Await Results, Underscoring Backlog at State Lab

Two residents were killed over the summer in separate accidents, but a backlog of toxicology evidence at the state crime lab has officials holding off on charges.

Robert Gunderson was riding his bike along Woods Road in Muskego the afternoon of July 7 when by a driver who said he fell asleep at the wheel.

Nearly two months later, near his residence at Tudor Oaks by another driver, who then also struck a garage before the car stopped.

As of yet, neither case has proceeded, as Muskego Police are awaiting results of toxicology screens before charges are brought against either driver. Capt. John La Tour told Muskego Patch it will likely be months before the results, and a decision on charges, come in. 

"We are generally seeing a turnaround of about nine months on tox screens, and we won't seek any charges until we get them," La Tour explained. "The backlog had been as much as two years when JB Van Hollen had come into office, and while it's still a long wait, we are seeing an improvement."

The Department of Justice and the state crime lab had been under fire in 2006 for what Van Hollen had called a 'monstrous' backlog in DNA lab evidence, which was declared eliminated by 2010. The state had hired 31 new analysts in 2007 to address that problem, but other delays still exist.

"Police and attorneys are more often seeking blood tests, rather than breath tests, in drunken driving cases. After a 1997 legal challenge to breath testing, police started to switch to blood tests, which have proved to be cheaper and more practical for police," state toxicology supervisor Laura Liddicoat said.

As a result, the requests for such tests have grown exponentially, and the tests themselves have become more complex, and thus longer to complete.

La Tour explained that law enforcement officials had been running into difficulty as charges would be brought against a suspect, but as results were pending, defense attorneys could claim their clients were denied a speedy and fair trial and have the case dismissed. The flip side, however, is that there is a risk that a suspect can reoffend while results are pending.

The State Laboratory of Hygiene's (SLH) analyzes 19,000 blood alcohol samples per year and the Forensic Toxicology Task Force has been wrestling with the issue of how to decrease that number. The SLH has not ruled out charging for full screens, or encouraging law enforcement to administer evidentiary breath tests whenever possible rather than obtaining blood samples for alcohol testing.

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