On Monday, April 22, the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab announced that their forensic drug chemists received accreditation and local law enforcement– the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and Valdosta Police– endorsed that it would provide faster response to processing drug evidence.
J. David Miller, the District Attorney of the Southern Judicial Circuit and local law enforcement proudly tout that the new crime lab will save money for taxpayers and will facilitate shorter wait times for court cases pending drug analysis.
However, what is sacrificed in the process ? Transparency, integrity , protocol and lack of an independent arbitor examining evidence that could impact the lives of many South Georgians one way or the other.
Despite the accolades, the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab has been used to sidestep or circumvent the Lowndes County coroner and there are questions about the role of this crime lab in the Kendrick Johnson investigation– and other investigations.
Lowndes Coroner Bill Watson has already gone on record about the crime scene at Lowndes County High School in which he had said it was compromised and Kendrick Johnson’s body was moved on January 11.
The logical next question is who moved the body and compromised the Lowndes High crime scene and what governmental organization was involved?
Sometimes in local government, there is a power struggle between local government entities. However, the Kendrick Johnson investigation has exposed that schism that suggest protocol, transparency and the integrity of investigations have been compromised.
J. David Miller, a supporter of the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab along with Lowndes Sheriff Chris Prine were front and center at a ribbon-cutting ceremony three years ago on July 12, 2010.
Does the Lowndes Sheriff’s Department and Valdosta Police Department have more influence over the Valdosta-Lowndes Crime Lab and does this undermine the integrity and blur the lines in regard to the roles and responsibilities of Lowndes County Coroner?
Brian Childress, the new police chief of the Valdosta Police Department has been very complementary of the new crime lab and said the following to the Valdosta Daily Times:
“We had to go out and find folks that had the educational background required to operate this equipment,” said Childress. “As of last week, we have three chemists at the lab and they are excellent folk. Two are from the city and one is from the sheriff’s office. They already had a lot of background when they came on board to their respective agencies here and all three had worked out of the VLRCL.”
So Childress has admitted that the crime lab in Valdosta is staffed with former or current members of the Valdosta Police and Lowndes Sheriffs’ Department and it does give the impression that this crime lab is beholden to these two departments with the intent of excluding the Lowndes Coroner and his office from selected investigations.
The Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab is not a GBI lab, but through this lab according Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress via the Valdosta Daily Times had said the following
“Let me be clear — both the police department and sheriff’s office said from the get go that once we got into this crime lab business, we’d try to provide the same services as the state crime labs. The state labs are ASCLD accredited, so we’re perusing that, too. We hope to put in an application with those folks in March of next year.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) is an independent, statewide agency that provides assistance to the state’s criminal justice system in the areas of criminal investigations, forensic laboratory services and computerized criminal justice information. The Bureau consists of three divisions: Investigative Division, Division of Forensic Sciences (GBI Crime Laboratory) and Georgia Crime Information Center.
The main word of emphasis is ‘independent’ and the cozy relationship between the Lowndes Sheriff’s Office, the Valdosta Police Department and J. David Miller with the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab should be a concern for the people of Lowndes and citizens living in the Southern Judicial Circuit (Thomas, Lowndes, Colquitt, Brooks and Echols).
When the coroner is routinely ignored and excluded, it presents a problem and if the Valdosta-Lowndes crime lab is beholden to Chris Prine and Brian Childress –or even local Sheriff’s in other counties who share the philosophy of excluding the coroner– what does this say about the integrity of investigations involving the death of an individual in Lowndes or anywhere in the Southern Judicial Circuit?
If there is no GBI lab, then any public-private crime lab should fall under the control of the OFFICE OF THE CORONER. Within the office of the Coroner, there are deputy coroners, medical examiners and their own set of investigators. Any hiring should be done through the Office of the Coroner.
In Georgia, it is worth repeating, the Office of the Sheriff and the Office of the Coroner are two separate offices.
The Sheriff and local law enforcement has a role up to a point and when a death occurs, laws are in place to explicitly state what a coroner can exclusively do.
However, this Valdosta-Lowndes Crime Lab has been trying to set a new standard.
Forensic Specialist Lt. Shannon Salter works as a criminalist/supervisor in the Valdosta -Lowndes Crime Lab.
However, Ms. Salter had been a Forensic Specialist/Detective at the Valdosta Police Department and had held other jobs such as a Crime Scene Technician and patrolman.
During the early days of the Kendrick Johnson, Sheriff Chris Prine was the primary contact of news reporters and gave theories about how Johnson had died on January 11.
Prine had talked about ‘his investigators’ and we now know that he wasn’t referring to anyone from the Lowndes County Coroner’s Office.
So who is Prine and members of the Lowndes Sheriff’s Office referring when they say ‘ their investigators’ or ‘his investigators’?
On Friday, April 19, J. David Miller, the District Attorney of the Southern Judicial Circuit, wrote a guest editorial in the Valdosta Daily Times about the role of the GBI in the Kendrick Johnson case.
It has been 108 days or nearly four months and there has been no lab report released from the GBI.
Miller, a Republican, cites budgetary cuts over past few years as one of the reasons why the GBI lab report has yet to be released.
There is a backstory to J. David Miller’s assertion about budgetary cuts. However, if local law enforcement routinely ignore the coroner in death investigations, this is problematic.
On a side note, the emergence of the Valdosta-Crime Regional Crime Lab is a result of former Republican Governor Sonny Perdue closing down the GBI crime lab in nearby Moultrie in Colquitt County.
There were efforts to close the Moultrie lab as early as 2007 when the lab lost is medical examiner despite public complaints from many South Georgia state legislators to keep the GBI lab open, but it appears State Sen. Tim Golden from Valdosta wasn’t one of those legislators who publicly complain about the loss of the Moultrie GBI lab.
Golden, a former Democrat, changed parties in 2010 and is now a loyal Republican.
In 2008, the Moultrie lab was first put on notice that their lab was slated to be closed. In 2010, money was allocated by the General Assembly to keep the Moultrie GBI crime Lab open, but was rebuffed by former Republican Governor Sonny Perdue.
According to WALB-TV, the following was reported in 2010: The closing of Moultrie’s Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab means offices that currently send their evidence there will now have to send it all the way to Macon, essentially doubling Macon’s case load overnight and backlogging the justice system.
Despite the closing, there were hopes the Moultrie GBI Crime lab would re-open, but it never materialized as the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab began to pick up momentum and support from local law enforcement in Valdosta.
Even though Bill Watson has been critical of the Lowndes Sheriff’s Office in regard to the Kendrick Johnson case, Watson’s predecessor, Walter Wacter expressed concern in 2008 over the Moultrie GBI crime lab closing and not having a medical examiner(s) on site to assist in autopsies.
Wacter said the following to the Valdosta Daily Times:
” It would be a lot more cost and time effective for Lowndes County if the Moultrie lab remains open and another medical examiner is hired. If our citizens would call the legislators and ask them to keep the crime labs open, it could make a difference.”