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Forensic cuts halt drug cases locally

The lack of drug analysis has impeded the clearing of cases by the Covington County grand jury, District Attorney Walt Merrell said.

More than 500 cases were presented this week to jurors, with an additional 218 disposed of prior to the beginning of court.

Numbers presented by the DA’s office showed of the 542 presentments, 127 true bills, or indictments, were handed down; 26 no bills were determined and one case void.

District Attorney Walt Merrell said the number of continued cases, which in this session totaled 170, continues to be an issue.

“We are extremely pleased with the number of disposed cases prior to grand jury,” Merrell said “Pleading those cases out early on frees up the system for more complex matters.

“We are, however, concerned about the number of continuances from this grand jury,” he said. “Of those, 90 percent were drug cases where we are still waiting on the chemical analysis to be performed by the Department of Forensic Science. They are under-funded, understaffed and overwhelmed, thus creating a backlog at the lab. I hope the legislature and the governor will find a way to remedy this situation soon.”

Grand jurors also performed the quarterly inspections of the courthouse, county jail and county board of education buildings.

At the courthouse, jurors once again recommended continuing the cosmetic repairs on the building, providing additional storage space and “the need for preserving vital records” in the event of a disaster.

Merrell said jurors that inspected the Covington County Board of Education said they thought it was neat and clean, and that in their opinion, “everything looked perfectly fine.”

Jurors described the county jail as “overcrowded and understaffed,” and pointed out the need for more corrections officers, as well as an increase in pay. The group also touched on previous findings concerning mold inside the jail’s work release area and the need for painting inside the buildings.

Jurors also reviewed and approved audits for the county commission, the revenue commissioner’s office and the probate judge’s office.