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Allegheny County's crime lab ranks among world's best

| Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, 9:30 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Medical examiner Dr. Karl Williams, the county’s second-highest-paid employee at nearly $188,000 a year, recently listed forensic consulting services on a financial disclosure form noting county employee's outside work.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Medical examiner Dr. Karl E. Williams gives a tour of the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office on Thursday, June 26, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
An autopsy table used for bodies in advanced stages of decomposition at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office on Thursday, June 26, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
A room for bodies in advanced stages of decomposition at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office on Thursday, June 26, 2014.

The Allegheny County crime lab can perform crime scene investigations for thousands less than other labs and complete the analysis faster.

DNA work, however, takes longer and costs more, according to a study by the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics.

It's one of the top labs in the world, according to Paul Speaker, an associate professor of finance at WVU and principal investigator for the study.

Speaker said he featured the lab in a recent presentation he made to the international police agency Interpol, based in Lyon, France.

“I told the story of three laboratories when I was speaking at Interpol, and Allegheny County was one of the three,” Speaker said. “Especially in toxicology, they were the best of any laboratory we saw.”

He said, “There was a very high level of productivity compared to what you would find elsewhere. Not only were they highly productive, they were also performing more tests on every case.”

Bob Huston, director of the lab at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office, said staffing levels, budget constraints and the number of tests run on evidence contribute to longer turn-around times.

“With the realization of touch DNA evidence in 2006, we receive more evidence for processing in a case than we did in prior years,” Huston wrote in an email to the Tribune-Review. “We are currently one of only a few laboratories in the country that maintains an open case file for bullets and cartridge casings. This review of the open case file definitely has an effect on turn-around time.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has lobbied Harrisburg to restore money for the crime lab, suggesting that without state money the lab could close. That would shift more than 19,000 pieces of evidence and 100,000 tests to Pennsylvania State Police labs. State funding dried up by the 2011-12 fiscal year.

The lab costs $4.65 million to run.

Speaker provided the Tribune-Review data from 2011 and 2012. He expects to publish 2013 and 2014 data next year. The county lab completes crime scene investigation work for about $5,000 less than the median and reports results 19 days faster.

Huston wrote that the lab keeps crime scene costs low by having scientists rather than uniformed officers complete the investigations.

DNA work, however, costs about $300 more per case and takes 65 days longer than the median, according to the study.

The scale of the county's operation contributes to the higher cost and longer wait times, Speaker said.

Speaker started his study in 2007 with 17 labs. Allegheny County's lab joined in 2008. The study takes data from about 80 labs across the country and in Canada, South America, Australia, Asia and Europe.

Speaker will meet with state police this week to discuss their participation in the study. State police operate six labs, the closest to Pittsburgh in Hempfield.

“From everything I've seen, from appearances there, it's a highly efficient organization,” Speaker said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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