SID SALTER: State must make new Crime Lab, DNA facility a priority

Mississippi taxpayers outraged over the sad cases of inmates Larry Ruffin, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon – inmates who served hard time for crimes they were proven by DNA testing not to have committed – should consider that the state has much work to do to avoid a repeat of that outrage.
Ruffin died in prison after spending 23 years in prison for a rape and murder in Hattiesburg that DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit. Bivens and Dixon were finally cleared this week of similar charges after spending more than three decades in prison.
Comply with law
In 2009, Mississippi was one of six states with no DNA preservation law. The Legislature passed such a law that year and Gov. Haley Barbour signed it into law.
That’s good. DNA evidence is a marvelous tool to convict the guilty and free the innocent when traditional investigative and prosecutorial methods fail. DNA preservation should slow down the endless march of appeal after appeal by career criminals.
But there’s a caveat of sorts. The bill didn’t specify a central location for storage of DNA evidence. In 2009, the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association complained that many law enforcement agencies had no place to store DNA evidence and no budget to maintain such storage.
Agencies had hoped the Mississippi Crime Lab would preserve and store DNA evidence for them after their cases were resolved.
But the crime lab also doesn’t have the capacity either.
The Crime Lab is responsible for performing forensic examinations on evidence submissions from all state and local enforcement agencies. A portion of the crime lab’s tasks includes DNA profiling and analysis, fingerprint identification, firearm identification and ballistics testing, analysis of fiber, glass and hair samples and arson and fire debris exams.
The main lab is in Jackson on at the Department of Public Safety complex off Woodrow Wilson Drive, but the state has three regional crime labs in Batesville, Meridian and Gulfport. The original Gulfport lab was replaced after the original one was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
Getting it right
The main lab in Jackson had been slated to be replaced and construction plans called for an expansion from the current 26,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet. But budget constraints have those construction plans gathering dust.
Mississippi’s death investigation system is also suspect. The state has no full-time state medical examiner, the state Crime Lab is woefully under funded and the state’s ability to collect and preserve DNA evidence is not consistent.
At some point, Mississippi taxpayers are going to have to pony up on a modern crime lab and standardize a DNA collection and storage system. Such actions are long overdue.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and Perspective editor for the Clarion-Ledger. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

Sid Salter