WJBF EXTRA: What’s Causing Backlog Of Criminal Court Cases

By Jillian Benfield

It was one of the most gruesome local murder cases seen in recent years. Jennifer Kitchens Wells was shot multiple times…then tied up and dragged for miles along a McDuffie County road. Wells' ex-husband and his girlfriend are in jail…charged with Jennifer Wells' death. But, other than that, District Attorney Dennis Sanders says the case is as empty as the courtroom.

Dennis Sanders, District Attorney: “We're just having to wait.”

Sanders is waiting on autopsy results. The reason is the GBI Crime Lab is backed up. Sanders says it's been a problem in recent years, but the issue is getting worse, because state lawmakers keep cutting the agency.

Sanders: “It's not a sexy funding, it doesn't help them do what they need to do and that is to get re-elected.”

In 2001, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) was given a budget of more than $61 million. In 2009, that number had swelled to $76 million. Then, two years later in 2011, the agency was funded at a lower level than a decade before…at just $60 million.

Mike ayers, GBI Special Agent: “It is inherently important that the Crime Lab continues to function at the highest possible rate that it can. The crime lab is expensive, the things they do there are not cheap.”

GBI Special Agent Mike Ayers says no one can prosecute cases without the Crime Lab. Since the lab is mandated, they're having to cut investigators to keep it running.

Ayers: “We are actually a smaller agency today then we were when I joined this agency, 22 years ago.”

The GBI has lost 68 agents in the past 10 years. Ayers says they used to have an agent assigned to each rural county…

Ayers: “Those days are gone.”

The loss of funding and agents makes it tough for rural sheriffs like McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall, who says he needs the GBI for 40 percent of all his cases.

Sheriff Logan Marshall, McDuffie County: “With man hours, and all it takes to solve cases and get it in the court system, it's very important to have investigators and agents to take care of citizens.”

While local sheriffs deal with the manpower shortage…they also deal with the backlog. District Attorney Sanders says it used to take just two months to get results back…now…

Sanders: “We don't get anything back in 30-60 days, any longer. That's a pipe dream.”

So, even in a high profile case like Jennifer Wells', Sanders expects the autopsy will take time.

Not only does the backlog affect the attorneys who have to try these cases, but it also affects the people who will eventually sit here in these seats…the victims' families.

Victims, like Jennifer Wells' daughter, Kayla, will have to wait months, possibly years for justice. Sanders says that is oftentimes the hardest part. But, the GBI backlog doesn't just affect law enforcement and the victims of crimes…

Sanders: “It's not just in the criminal courtroom, it's affecting everyone in their walk of life and people don't realize it until they need them.”

Oftentimes, life insurance companies will require an autopsy before they give the family members money.

Sanders says these cases are oftentimes put at the back of the backlog…and families end up having to wait months for compensation.

It drains county budgets, too, because it causes suspects to sit in jails for longer amounts of time awaiting trial, instead of being housed inside a state prison.

Sanders: “The criminal justice system is the backbone of our society, we cannot prosecute cases without the crime lab.”

Ayers says, if there is one positive to all the cutbacks…it's that it has forced them to become extremely specialized. The GBI focuses on crimes against children, major murder cases, and drug trafficking.

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