Toxicology test delays common, officials say

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It could be more than a month before officials learn the results of toxicology tests on the driver of a car involved in a Poland wreck over Christmas that killed six people.

A spokesman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Maine said toxicology screenings often take up to six weeks.

Because Maine has no lab of its own that can run the tests, samples are sent to Central Valley Toxicology, a national laboratory in California. When the sample gets there, it has to queue up, much like a moviegoer. If you happen to get there when the line is short, the turnaround time will be quicker, said Jim Ferland, an administrator at the office.

Blood samples from Michael Cournoyer, 20, of Lewiston that were collected last week likely would be sent to the lab later this week, Ferland said.

Sending blood samples of drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents to the lab for toxicology screening is routine, said Androscoggin County District Attorney Norm Croteau.

Generally speaking, Ferland said the time it takes to run the tests depends on the number of tests performed. If a blood sample contains no drugs or alcohol of any sort, the results are likely to come back much sooner, maybe in two or three weeks.

If substances are detected, it probably would take longer to determine which substances were found and in what quantities through additional testing, Ferland said.

Some large cities, such as San Francisco, have public toxicology labs, Ferland said. “It depends on the volume,” he said. The cost of sophisticated machines and expert staff makes the cost prohibitive for a state as small as Maine.

Maine picked the California lab based on its fee structure as well as its turn-around times, which are “better than other labs we’ve had experience with,” Ferland said.

Quality also is a concern, he said. The California forensic lab meets all of the qualifications needed for prosecutors to use its results in any courtroom, Ferland said.

In rare cases, such as when a criminal case hinges on the results of toxicology to determine if a homicide has been committed, his office can seek an expedited report, Ferland said. Usually, there’s no additional cost.

Whether a speedier test is required is decided by law enforcement authorities, prosecutors or by the chief medical examiner, Ferland said.

In Cournoyer’s case, an expedited report was not requested, he said.

Croteau said slow turn-around times can sometimes hold up prosecutors who need the results to go forward with criminal charges before a grand jury.

“It’s always something that we have to wait for,” he said, though that doesn’t mean it necessarily hamstrings his prosecutors.

Delays in general are never good for a criminal case, whatever the cause, where witnesses’ memories get foggy and sometimes the witnesses disappear, he said.

“It’s never in the best interest of the state,” he said.

But, Croteau said, he would rather wait for toxicology results than not have them at all.

Although waiting times for toxicology results can be lengthy, Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes, who heads up the criminal division, said they haven’t held up prosecutions at his office.

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