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Scientists at the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab now have more than double the amount of room to work in, and they say it'll help victims get justice quicker.

The new lab at 3977 Air Park Road opened Oct. 26 and is 15,000 square feet bigger than its predecessor.

On Tuesday, Kent Weber, supervisor of the firearm and toolmark section of the physical sciences unit, stood in the gun storage room showing off the extra space. 

"We have room to grow now," he said, motioning to shelves and walls filled with more than 1,000 guns used for comparisons and testing during shooting investigations. The gun collection is the unit's reference library and holds firearms from common handguns to foreign guns and a grenade. 

Amy Weber and Sarah Zarnick, forensic scientists in the physical sciences unit, now have enough room to work without bumping into each other, or waiting for one to finish up before the other moves in. 

The new laboratory also has technological upgrades including a remote firing apparatus to keep forensic scientists safe when testing possibly faulty guns, imaging software to help document fingerprints from electronics and antiques and robots that can process 96 samples of DNA at a time.

The lab has four units, each with multiple sections. The biology unit analyzes DNA and biological evidence; the chemistry unit tests drugs for potency, does toxicology reports for DUI cases and investigates arson; physical sciences houses the firearm and toolmark section as well as the fingerprint processing section; and the quality assurance manager oversees evidence intake.

Each section has its own offices and workrooms, with larger areas to process evidence than before. Each of the lab's 26 employees has an individual work space.

The lab provides services free to the entire state and has worked with 160 law enforcement agencies. Last year, lab personnel made 51 court appearances to testify in six counties, searched for 334 fingerprints and processed 3,435 samples of DNA from convicted felons.

Ground was broken on the roughly $9 million building built by the Lincoln Airport Authority in August 2014. The total cost for the building and work came to just more than $11 million. The State Patrol will reimburse the Airport Authority through a 20-year lease.

Col. Bradley Rice, superintendent of the patrol, said the federal government's freeze on civil forfeiture shares shouldn't affect payments in the short term. 

"We have enough funds to last quite a while," he said. 

During a news conference Thursday morning, Rice said the lab's staff is excited to be settled into their new home. Every aspect of the project -- from construction to moving equipment -- was a "big teamwork effort," which he called a hallmark of the crime lab.

The original crime lab opened in 1973. Since then, it has gone from handling roughly 400 cases a year to 4,000, Rice said.

By the end of this year, supervisors hope to have the turnaround time for drug testing cases down to four weeks. Toxicology results, most of which relate to DUI cases, are normally returned within four months and cases where DNA is used returned on average in five months, officials said. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts said the new lab will help make Nebraska safer.

"Facilities like this mean that we will be able to do a better job at catching the bad guys and bringing them to justice, which means victims will get that outcome they're looking for and get those perpetrators brought to justice faster," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7395 or nmanna@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSNicholeManna.

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