WNC crime lab plan
The proposed site of a new western crime lab in Edneyville, at the Western Justice Academy, as suggested by State Crime Laboratory director Joseph John. A rival proposal would put the lab in Morganton.

Western North Carolina could soon get a substantial increase in State Crime Laboratory workers. But where they would work remains an open question, as two Republican legislators — Sen. Tom Apodoca, R-Hendersonville and Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Morganton — have vied to situate a new crime lab in their respective districts.

The state Senate released its proposed biennial statewide budget on May 19. In it, they provided for the hiring of 19 toxicology analysts to work in the mountain region at a two-year cost of $3 million for their salaries. Read here about how the proposal could further impact the region.

The proposal did not address if and where a new western crime lab would be built. The state’s current regional lab, the Western Regional Laboratory, is in south Asheville and is relatively small and can’t facilitate the forensic work that is most lacking in the region. There are 16 current staffers at the lab in south Asheville, but none do toxicology work.

A new western lab is sorely needed, according to local and state law enforcement officials, who cite growing backlogs in the processing of DWI (Driving While Impaired) toxicology reports. At present, blood samples from such cases must be sent to Greensboro or Raleigh for analysis, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to schedule western court appearances by State Crime Laboratory analysts working in those cities.

In February, Joseph John, director of the State Crime Laboratory, completed a report on the matter for the General Assembly. In it, he recommended that a new toxicology lab be established in Edneyville in Henderson County at the state’s Western Justice Academy training facility.

John recommended hiring 19 toxicologists for the new lab and said it would cost roughly $16.7 million to build and staff it.

At almost the same time, Apodaca introduced legislation that would fund the lab and site it in Edneyville, which is in his district. The bill promptly made its way to the senate’s budget committee.

In late March, Daniel introduced rival legislation that would site the lab on state-owned land in Burke County, which he represents. His bill implied that the same job could be done for less than $5 million at a preexisting building.

The Senate’s proposed budget made no mention of where the new toxicologists would be based, but it did include other provisions related to crime lab work in Western North Carolina, according to a report by the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee.

Those provisions include the salaries of the 19 new analysts, $1 million for equipment to expand toxicology work in the western part of the state and $750,000 to outsource western toxicology cases, if that proves legally feasible.

On Monday, Apodoca did not return a call to his office from Carolina Public Press.

Daniel was out when Carolina Public Press called but responded via email. “No decision has been made about where the new western crime lab will be located,” he wrote. “I continue to believe that it would be more cost effective for the state to utilize an existing state building than to construct a new one, regardless of where that building is located.”

Daniel added: “The distance modeling that my staff has done based on available testimony data from the western region indicates that locating the western crime lab in Morganton would save a substantial amount of mileage on state vehicles as well as saving the man-hours required to drive those miles.”

Daniel’s crime lab bill has languished in the Senate’s Rules and Operations committee, which Apodoca chairs.

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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