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A NewsMS Investigation: Your Money and the New Miss. Crime Lab

JACKSON, Miss.—Your state lawmakers have spent $36 million to build a brand new, state of the art crime lab to help solve murders, put rapists in jail, get DUI convictions and make solid cases for your local law enforcement. What you may not know is that the crew at the crime lab may have to stay in the old building, unless budget conferees come through this legislative session.

The reason, according to Sam Howell, director for the state crime lab, is that even though they gave the go-ahead to building the new facility, neither the House nor the Miss. Senate put money in the budget for the move.

“It’s gonna be very costly to move in and right now we haven’t had any appropriation for the moving cost, but I can’t see the state making such an investment in such a facility and then not have the money to move us,” said Howell.

Howell has been with the crime lab for 29 years. He said the current building was built in 1976. It’s one story and they’re running out of space. There are also continuing maintenance issues that keep the Dept. of Public Safety spending money, year after year.

The new crime lab, set to be complete in August.
The new crime lab, set to be complete in August.
The old crime lab, located near DPS headquarters in Jackson. This one was built in 1976.
The old crime lab, located near DPS headquarters in Jackson. This one was built in 1976.

There’s a lot of equipment in the building, including very delicate scanning electron microscopes, machines for DNA processing, an indoor firing range for ballistics, a morgue and autopsy facility, a latent finger print lab, a lab for toxicology tests, and an evidence storage facility (state law now mandates evidence for all capital cases be kept 20 years, so they’re always in need of more space).

Howell said the reason the move is so costly is that you can’t just pack delicate equipment up in the back of a pickup and move it over.

“Obviously, if there’s no money to move, we won’t move.”

As for why the move has not been added to the budget, News Mississippi reached out to Senate Appropriations Chair Eugene Clark, but did not get a call back Monday.

“I’m sure they’ll have the money for the move,” said Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl), who has been instrumental in getting the new lab built.

“I’m very excited about the project,” he told News Mississippi. “We’ll set the standard for crime labs in the country.”

Howell was also optimistic.

“It may be that they’re just assessing, trying to get a more accurate cost. I’m very optimistic that it will all be there by the time it’s done,” said Howell.

He estimates that could take a little over a half million dollars, which he says he cannot take from any other part of his budget because of new legislative rules.

The new crime lab autopsy room. This one uses natural light, from the skylights above, and will have four tables instead of three. The state crime lab performs up to 1,400 autopsies per year.
The new crime lab autopsy room. This one uses natural light, from the skylights above, and will have four tables instead of three. The state crime lab performs up to 1,400 autopsies per year.

What you will be missing out on if the move doesn’t happen: If you’ve ever been the victim of a crime, you could probably safely say that you felt better when the bad guy was off the streets. With the new crime lab, Howell anticipates that criminals could be caught faster, DNA evidence could be better collected, stored and filed in a national database (they are, and have been storing the DNA profiles in the national database since 2006), more autopsies could be completed in a more timely manner (they are increasing the number of autopsy tables) and more evidence could be stored in the proper environment.

In short, almost every facet of forensic evidence collection, processing and presentation could be improved.

“It’s a world of difference,” said Kirby.

Howell also said he hopes for an increase for his operating budget, which he says has gone down every year, leaving him short-staffed and underfunded, but with an expectation to produce good court cases and quality results.

News Mississippi toured both the old and new crime lab facilities. The difference was obvious. The amount of space would be improved, as would the efficiency of movement within the building.

One major difference is the location.

The new facility is near Whitfield, about 15 to 20 minutes from the Dept. of Public Safety headquarters on Woodrow Wilson Dr. in Jackson.

There is a tentative plan to move DPS Headquarters in the future to a space near the new crime lab.

Construction is expected to wrap up in August at the new lab. Howell said Monday he hopes the budget conferees see what he believes is a necessary use of taxpayer money and fund the move. That could happen by the end of the week.

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