Pubdate: Wed, 11 Feb 2004
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2004 New Zealand Herald
Author: Simon Collins, science reporter


Drug detection agency ESR wants to cut back the information it gives
to the courts to catch up with a growing backlog of methamphetamine

ESR forensic programme manager Keith Bedford said yesterday that he
was discussing "streamlining" methamphetamine reports with the courts,
police and Crown Law Office.

But a prominent Auckland lawyer is concerned that ESR - the Institute
of Environmental Science and Research - could present inadequate
evidence to court.

ESR is responding to criticism by High Court Justice John Priestley in
the case of Murupara man Craig Mulder, who has been told he may have
to wait 18 more months for a trial because ESR has not yet processed
evidence from an alleged "P" methamphetamine laboratory. Mulder has
already spent seven months in jail awaiting trial.

Dr Bedford said he had only eight scientists trained to dismantle and
take samples from clandestine drug laboratories, with each case taking
up to a month's work.

Yet the number of clandestine labs discovered nationwide had risen
rapidly to about 180 last year.

In the year to June the number is expected to reach 300 - far more
than the eight scientists can handle.

There is now a backlog of 170 cases.

"So we have to look at how to be more targeted in what we are doing,"
Dr Bedford said.

"We have traditionally delivered very, very comprehensive statements
about the results and explanation of the process and interpretation of
what has been found.

"We believe it is possible for us to reduce the amount of work
required without affecting the quality of what we are producing for
the court.

"It's a matter of negotiating that through with the Crown solicitors
and so on, and providing something which is fit for the purpose but
not a major research project in itself."

ESR employs 106 forensic staff and is enjoying a boom in popularity
because of television coverage of DNA-based detective work.

"It's sexy at the moment," Dr Bedford said.

The director of the country's only forensic science university course,
Dr Douglas Elliot, of Auckland University, said about 40 science
graduates applied each year for the 20 places in the postgraduate course.

"There has been huge growth in the past few years in the forensic
science education industry. In Australia there are now 19 different
tertiary institutions offering some kind of forensic science

But the intake at Auckland was capped at 20 because there were no more
jobs available at the end of the training.

Dr Bedford said even those who completed a master's or doctoral degree
in forensics still needed two more years of on-the-job training to
qualify as clandestine-laboratory investigators, and not all graduates
were suitable.

"Some of the work that we do is messy. They are going to have to be
conscientious. They are going to have to stand up to pressure that
might come on them from the police to get a particular result, and in
court they are going to have to be able to express themselves.

"Having the right sort of personality, and a very deep sense of
ethical behaviour as investigators, is absolutely vital."

ESR advertised internationally late last year for two extra
investigators, but faced a worldwide shortage and has not found
suitable people apart from an experienced Canadian who is here on
secondment until mid-year. Dr Bedford hopes he will choose to stay.

The Ministry of Justice has facilitated meetings of ESR, police and
Crown Law prosecutors to discuss whether reports can be streamlined.
All agencies confirmed the discussions but declined to comment on progress.

Gary Gotlieb, spokesman for the Auckland District Law Society, said
ESR might end up making a rod for its own back.

"If they end up having to go back and redo things in more detail
because of inadequate evidence, there will be more delays."

Defence lawyers were already concerned about the independent status of
ESR, said Mr Gotlieb.

"It would be nice if the defence bar was consulted on any changes as

Defence lawyers would not be "bloody minded" and stand in the way of
change, but needed to be part of any discussion.

Lab busts

* 9 in 2000

* 41 in 2001

* 147 in 2002

* 180 last year (est)

* 300 by June (est)

* There is a backlog of 170 cases under investigation
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin