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Forensic Science Oversight Panel Meets

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DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware officials are having trouble finding a director for the new Division of Forensic Science, which replaced the Office of Chief Medical Examiner earlier this year amid an evidence tampering scandal at the state drug-testing lab.

Officials said Tuesday at a meeting of the division's oversight panel that they have yet to find a person with the right mix of scientific qualifications and management skills.

"It's becoming a little more difficult than I thought" said Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro.

"We've had applicants with great science backgrounds ... but very few of them have managed people," Schiliro explained.

Members of the panel said they may want to reconsider the qualifications for the director's post, as well as the pay range of $90,000 to $120,000.

Schiliro's department, which includes the state police, has oversight of the forensic science division. The chief medical examiner's office, in contrast, was overseen by the Department of Health and Social Services.

Schiliro acknowledged that officials need to instill public trust in the division.

"People may not trust the police, but they can trust the science," he said.

Dr. Gary Collins, Delaware's new chief medical examiner, suggested that officials may want to look in-house for a division director. Collins replaced chief medical examiner Dr. Richard Callery, who was targeted in a criminal investigation involving possible misuse of state resources and was fired for misconduct in July amid the evidence-tampering scandal. The scandal also resulted in the arrests of two state employees and prompted dismissals or plea bargains in several drug cases.

"I've only been there a month ... but there's a tremendous amount of talent there," Collins said. "It appears that a lot of the talent has been stifled by the prior administration."

Meanwhile, officials said significant progress has been made in improving operations and morale within the former medical examiner's office.

"I saw an energy there I haven't seen in a long time," said state prosecutor Kathleen Jennings.

Randall Hughes, Schiliro's chief deputy and interim director of the Division of Forensic Science, said the lab has resumed accepting drug evidence from the Wilmington Police Department, and in special cases from the Delaware State Police.

"Our evidence handling and chain of custody has been totally revamped," Hughes said, adding that the next step is opening the lab to more police agencies, which currently are sending evidence to a Pennsylvania lab.

Hughes also said the number of backlogged DNA test cases is down to 49, none of them involving sexual assaults or homicides, and that the division has set a turnaround time goal of 40 days. Officials also are working to update the division's information technology infrastructure, Hughes said.

The division still faces significant challenges, however, including a cramped, outdated facility that may need to be replaced. Officials have requested $350,000 for an architectural study of the existing building as part of an effort to develop a strategic plan by 2016.  Commission members voted Tuesday to establish a separate strategic planning advisory committee, along with a standards and certifications advisory committee.

Meanwhile, Schiliro plans to request an extension of a Jan. 31 deadline to submit a progress report and recommendations for further action to lawmakers and the governor.
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