Pubdate: Tue, 18 Apr 2006
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2006 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority
Author:  The Associated Press


TUSCALOOSA -- Alabama's forensics agency is getting a budget boost 
and reducing a backlog that has slowed criminal trials statewide, but 
it still can't hire enough specialists to perform all the autopsies 
that need to be done.

F. Taylor Noggle, director of the Alabama Department of Forensic 
Sciences, said he is having a hard time filling two vacancies for 
licensed pathologists, who have to go through even more training that 
the average medical doctor.

Alabama's pay for a pathologist ranges from $110,000 annually to 
$172,000, while an associate medical examiner in Florida starts at 
$150,000 and make more than $180,000 after being promoted to chief.

Even if Noggle could be more competitive with states like Tennessee, 
which sends autopsy cases to medical examiners in private practice, 
that wouldn't solve the problem.

In 2004, there were 75 openings for pathologists across the nation, 
yet only 35 graduated from medical schools. Even if all those 
graduates took jobs in state medical examiners' offices, there would 
still be a shortfall of 40 positions.

"It's just nationwide. There's a problem with folks going into that 
field," said Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Tommy Smith. "That 
creates a problem beyond the control of the Department of Forensic 
Science. But it still contributes to the problem of the backlog."

The new state operating budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, will 
increase funding to the forensics agency by $2.1 million, or 19 
percent, to $13.1 million. Another $8.7 million from other sources, 
such as criminal case fines and federal funds, will hike the total 
budget to a record $21.9 million.

While funding and staff shortages helped create a backlog of some 
2,000 toxicology cases, Noggle said the department is making headway 
and has reduced its backlog by as much as 35 percent in most areas since 2004.

But progress in some areas is not so apparent, he said.

The drug chemistry analysis division, where technicians test drugs 
ranging from prescription medication to methamphetamine, has a 
1,350-case backlog, Noggle said. And the firearms division, where 
experts link spent shell casings to weapons, has a backlog of 317 cases.

The backlogs have led to frustrations for people like Kathy Allen of 
Northport, whose 24-year-old daughter Katherine Lee Free was found 
dead in the bathtub on July 26, 2004. The woman was five months 
pregnant when her husband returned home from work to discover her body.

Allen has been told that a toxicology report indicated no drugs in 
Free's system, and she's also been told that bruises were found under 
the skin on her daughter's neck. But homicide detectives have told 
her that there is no criminal investigation or suspicion of foul play.

An autopsy was conducted in the days immediately after Free's death, 
but an official report on what killed her has yet to be released.

"I just want to know what happened, and I can't get any information," 
Allen said.
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