LITTLE ROCK – Earlier this month the state Crime Lab opened a new facility in Lowell, in northwest Arkansas.
The opening will speed forensic testing and chemical analysis for law enforcement agencies in the region. It also will relieve pressure on the backlog of cases in the main Crime Lab in Little Rock and the Regional Laboratory in Hope.
Also this month, the Legislative Council’s Personnel Subcommittee approved the Crime Lab’s request to make the salary of the state chief Medical Examiner more competitive. It will be $270,455 a year. The position has been vacant since July.
The medical examiner oversees the section in the Crime Lab that performs autopsies. More than 1,500 autopsies a year are referred to the section. They are cases of sudden and unexpected deaths, caused by trauma and natural diseases. They include criminal cases, industrial accidents, and motor vehicle accidents.
For comparison, Memphis also has an opening for a chief medical examiner and is paying a salary of about $300,000 a year, the Crime Lab’s director told the Personnel Committee.
The director told legislators that the Crime Lab has not yet received any applications for the vacant position. The previously posted salary had been a range, from $175,620 to $270,455.
Another job opening in the medical examiner’s section has been vacant for more than a year and a half, the director said. Other states have difficulty filling the positions because there are so few board-certified forensic pathologists in the country. The director estimated the total to be about 400.
The Crime Lab also has a DNA section, whose duty is to analyze and organize evidence from crime scenes. Staff also testify in court.
A related section collects and organizes DNA samples from convicted offenders, unsolved cases, missing persons and unidentified bodies. The data is shared nationwide to assist criminal investigations.
The use of DNA samples in criminal investigations began with the passage of legislation in 1997, but it was limited to the collection of blood samples from criminals convicted of sexual and violent offenses.
In 2001, burglary was made a crime that allowed law enforcement to collect DNA from a convicted offender. Act 1470 of 2003 made Arkansas an all-felony state, meaning samples were collected from every person convicted of any felony.
Act 543 of 2015 expanded the law to allow for the collection of a DNA sample on all felony arrests.
The Crime Lab has a section that is familiar to anyone who watches police shows on TV, or who reads murder mysteries. It is under the Firearms and Toolmarks examiner. Its main duty is to compare ammunition with firearms, for example, to determine what type of gun fired a bullet recovered from a crime scene.
The Forensic Toxicology section identifies illegal drugs and determines whether they are a factor in suspicious deaths.
The Crime Lab has staff who take fingerprints, palm prints and footprints. The same section identifies tire tracks and the tracks left by various types of shoes. Part of the sections duties is to enter prints into a computer-based system, where investigators can search for and compare prints compiled throughout the country.
James Sturch, a lifelong resident of Independence County, is currently serving as the State Senator for District 19 in the Arkansas State Senate.