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Staffing issues delay evidence testing in FDLE crime labs

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Updated: 1/17 8:17 pm
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, loss of staff is causing a significant delay in evidence processing that could potentially help solve hit-and-run cases in the area.

Almost two months after 15-year-old Haley Smith was struck and killed in St. Augustine, her mother, Jo-Lee Manning, is still waiting for justice.

"I can't believe that people are so heartless that they could take a life and continue on with theirs," said Manning.

A new update in the case is still keeping hope alive.

On Friday, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office released new information regarding forensic evidence sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that revealed the car police are looking for may be dark purple or metallic black.

"That just gives us another piece of the puzzle as to what type of vehicle we may be looking for," said Sgt. Catherine Payne.

But the puzzle remains unsolved, and like many other cases, much of the evidence is still being processed at the FDLE crime labs.

According to the FDLE, it take analysts 48 days to process toxicology results -- eight days more than their target. The area most impacted is the trace evidence analysis section, the FDLE says it takes analysts 217 days to turnaround results; their target is 115.

"That is frustrating because then you wonder if by the time they get around to processing it, will the evidence be of any use?" said Manning.

However, according to FDLE spokesperson Samantha Andrews, as of Dec. 31 FDLE has decreased its trace evidence turnaround time to 122 days.

The only area not impacted is the DNA evidence section. FDLE said in that section it takes analysts 82 days to process evidence, their target turnaround is 111 days.

The state law enforcement agency said its turnaround time has been especially impacted in the trace evidence section after a 40 percent loss of personnel to retirement. The FDLE currently has 11 analysts assigned to trace evidence which serve all of Florida. However, some are new trainees and others are trainers. 

According to Andrews, there are currently about 6.5 full-time equivalent analysts in that discipline.

"We are currently training forensic scientists in this discipline, but the training program is quite extensive and can take up to two years to complete," said Andrews.

According to Manning, all the work shouldn't fall on law enforcement. She says lawmakers need to step in to prevent another tragedy.

"We definitely need to make changes in our society. If that means making tougher laws with higher penalties, then so be it," said Manning.

In Smith's case, the FDLE says it received a rush request for analysis of trace evidence from the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office
on Nov. 21 and Nov. 26. Results were reported to the SJCSO on Dec. 16. More trace evidence was submitted for testing on Dec. 20, but that is still being processed.

Smith's family has started a Facebook page called Justice for Haley that has already received almost 750 likes.

CrimeStoppers is offering a reward of up to $6,000 if your tip leads to an arrest. If you have any information, call 1-888-277-TIPS.
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