Inside the Arkansas State Crime Lab

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - In our minds, we've been trained to believe a crime lab is a sci-fi futuristic virtual reality techno-haven where the most bizarre and intricate cases are solved by radically powerful computers.

But in reality, it's more like your high school science lab on steroids with a ballistics range.

The  Arkansas State Crime Lab is an 80,000 square foot fortress in Little Rock that's all lab and  all science.  Not science fiction.

"We don't do crime scene investigation."

Kermit Channell is the Director of the Arkansas State Crime Lab, a position he's held for five years.

He gave us a tour of his three-story layout and the 12 divisions it houses.  Virtually all of it is seen through glass. Security is very tight, it has to be to maintain the lab's accreditation.

The lab is constantly in motion. Technicians working their cases, testing everything from blood to weapons.  And with cases coming in from all 75 Arkansas counties including some federal cases, the lab has what Director Channell calls a "working backlog" of cases.

"At one time as early as 2005, we had an 18,000 case backload.  Today we probably have a 4200 to 4500 case backlog. We've made drastic improvements, but one thing we can't lose sight of is sacrificing the quality of our work just to push cases out the door."

With thousands of cases waiting to be processed, Director Channell sets a goal for processing evidence and getting it back to law enforcement.  That target is 30 days for each section of the lab involved in the case.

"I'll use an example of a sexual assault case. When a sexual assault case comes in, it typically goes to physical evidence. We want to get the results out in 30 days, what that means is a physical report to law enforcement to let them know if we have biological evidence. The next process is we want to get to DNA.  We want to get it out of there in 30 days.  So in a typical rape case our goal is 30 days in each section. So from soup to nuts, from submission to all reports out on that case we want 60 days.  We want to get things out the door in 60 days or less, that's the goal. Here recently, we are missing that goal.  We've been a little big short, only because there's been so many homicides this year."

He says the biggest problem his lab faces is when he has to send one of his analysts to testify in court.

"We are sending people to Fayetteville, West Memphis, Texarkana, Jonesboro all over the state to testify and when they are out testifying that means they aren't on the bench doing their scientific work here."

Does that mean the lab needs to expand, perhaps add regional labs?

"It's a very expensive proposition and I don't think in Arkansas we need that at this point."

Maintaining his lab's growth is something Director Channell is eyeing right now. His lab used to fill just one floor of this building, now all three.  While the regional lab idea isn't plausible, Channell expects the lab will eventually have to expand.

"As we sit here today, I think we're fine.  But I think we do have to consider growth for the future."

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