Crimes waiting to be solved: TBI backlog's impact on Tri-Cities cases

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) - It is no secret the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is facing a daunting DNA testing backlog. The problem is now raising more concern among law enforcement agencies here in upper East Tennessee when it comes to the time it takes for evidence in some murder cases to be processed. 

Christmas Eve 2016, it was here along Herb Hodge road in Washington County, Tennessee. Where 40-year-old Keila Taylor's body was found near the banks of the Watauga River.

Keila's friend and former roommate Reda Carrier devastated after hearing about the gruesome discovery on social media. 

"I was scrolling through and I saw the picture of her and I immediately started crying."

Investigators with the Washington County sheriff's office said Taylor's body was dumped near the river's edge. Sheriff Ed Graybeal telling us at the time, there was no doubt someone murdered her. 

"I want to know why and who," Carrier said. 

Evidence found on Taylor's body and samples collected from the crime scene here along the Watauga river were all sent to the TBI crime lab, the results from that evidence took nearly a year to come back. 

"It is so hard to do these test and get it right, it would have to help if you had more technicians, that is just the way the job is nowadays," Graybeal said. 

Sheriff Graybeal says the first round of test results on evidence in the Taylor case did not lead them to a suspect but more extensive tests could.

"There are a couple more test that they can run for us. [They] tell us what race you are [and] if you've got brown eyes, [or] black hair," Graybeal said. 

Still, the sheriff says those tests could take time, partly because of an already mounting rape and DNA backlog.  

According to TBI, there are a little over 2,000 rape inventory kits that still have yet to be tested. 

In 2017, the TBI Forensic Services Division conducted 413,968 tests on 86,322 pieces of evidence.

That work falls on three crime labs, one in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville. As of December 31, 2017, the TBI lab in Nashville reported a 37-week turnaround time on forensic biology. The Knoxville lab reported 42 weeks and the Memphis lab 32 weeks. 

These three offices are all responsible for testing DNA crime evidence across the state and that work isn't easy.

We sat down with analyst Jennifer Millsaps at the Knoxville crime lab. She's been testing evidence for 15 years and says while there is a backlog they are doing everything they can to get the work finished accurately. 

"We are getting quite a few cases in right now but we can't increase our speed just to account for that. we continue to try and work at the pace we are comfortable with and will provide those quality results," Millsaps said.  

So how did the backlog happen?  According to TBI, a few years ago new state legislation was passed that required all law enforcement agencies to inventory their unprocessed sexual assault kits. 

As a result, several thousand kits were determined to be unprocessed, the work of processing those kits then falling into the hands of TBI analyst. 

In 2015, the TBI obtained $1 million in grant funds to help outsource the work to private labs, but still the results have to be reviewed by the TBI  piling on more work and delaying other cases. 

"The faster than TBI can turn it to us, the better off we are," Graybeal said.  

Sheriff  Graybeal is hopeful the outsourcing will help free up work for analyst and other crimes can be solved. 

It has now been more than a year since Keila Taylor's body was found along the banks of the Watauga Rive.

Her friend Reda Carrier is still asking why.

"She was a very good-hearted person and she'd give the shirt off her back if you wanted it," Carrier said. 

Carrier and the sheriff are both hopeful that DNA evidence could lead them to find justice for Keila Taylor. 

We asked about adding more positions in TBI Crime labs, could this help get results to local agencies quicker?  According to the TBI they currently have no unfilled positions in the Forensic Services Division.

They also tell us, additional funding would need to be allocated before any new positions could be added.

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