Cooper replaces SBI director, suspends bloodstain analysis

Attorney general says training and standards on blood work will be reviewed.

Staff WritersJuly 30, 2010 

  • The State Bureau of Investigation has been under scrutiny since February, when Greg Taylor, a Wake County man who had been in prison for 17 years, was exonerated by a panel of judges. At the center of the mistakes that sent him to prison in 1993: a lab report from agent Duane Deaver, an expert in bloodstain pattern analysis and serology.

    Deaver kept a secret that was critical to Taylor's prosecution: A conclusive test showed that material on Taylor's truck wasn't blood, even though the agent filed a report with prosecutors saying that the truck gave chemical indications for the presence of blood. He testified that his bosses told him to write his reports in that way.

    Attorney General Roy Cooper, who oversees the SBI, in March launched an external audit of the bureau's blood work. That report is pending.

  • In her new job, Robin Pendergraft will head a unit devoted to recovering misspent government health insurance dollars.

    The legislature invested heavily in Medicaid fraud detection this past session in hopes that aggressive investigations would help stem the misuse of government benefits.

    Gov. Bev Perdue made the issue a priority and secured funding for 25 new positions. Pendergraft will manage the team of lawyers, financial analysts and SBI agents.

  • Things happened quickly for Robin Pendergraft and the SBI during the past week:

    Friday : N&O reporters interview Pendergraft. She is surprised by many of her agency's documents. She will not discuss specific cases, saying she knows nothing about them or cannot because of personnel privacy or pending litigation.

    Saturday: After questions raised by The N&O, Cooper and SBI leadership suspend the work of bloodstain pattern analysts.

    Tuesday: Cooper postpones meeting with The N&O to attend to internal matters.

    Thursday: Cooper meets with N&O reporters and announces Pendergraft's move.

  • Sunday, Aug. 8

    Read the start our of four-part series, "Agents' Secrets," which reveals rogue agents and warped science at the State Bureau of Investigation.

Attorney General Roy Cooper on Thursday removed Robin Pendergraft, the SBI director whom he handpicked a decade ago, and halted the work of bloodstain pattern analysts whose methods have faced mounting criticism.

Both moves came in the face of questions from The News & Observer about problems at the lab and in other SBI operations. Cooper on Thursday expressed concerns about the work produced by the bloodstain pattern analysts and said their work would stop until he is satisfied that their experiments and training are sound.

"I want all the scientific disciplines [at the crime lab] to have the highest standards possible," said Cooper, noting concerns with the blood-spatter analysis. "There will be a review of training, certification and standards before it's reinstituted."

Cooper is sending his legislative liaison, Greg McLeod, to head the SBI. Pendergraft, who earned a promotion of sorts, will head an expanded Medicaid fraud unit at the state Department of Justice. Her move came six days after she struggled to explain her agency's work in an interview with The N&O.

She said she wasn't familiar with several bureau policies and practices, as well as with cases that have drawn attention from defense lawyers and independent scientists. She refused to answer questions about the disputed cases.

The N&O began investigating the SBI in March, prompted by the exoneration of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man wrongly convicted of murder. Taylor's conviction was erased in part because SBI agent Duane Deaver reported that a stain on Taylor's truck was blood, even though he had performed tests that proved it wasn't.

Pendergraft defended Deaver in March and last week and said there were no widespread problems in the bureau.

Cooper appointed Pendergraft in 2001. He praised her during an interview Thursday, saying she provided stellar leadership and strengthened ties between the SBI and local law enforcement.

"I think Robin has done an excellent job at the SBI," Cooper said. "She's been a caring, tireless worker. She will be difficult to replace."

Pendergraft's transfer to the Medicaid fraud unit could result in a raise, Cooper said. She earned $113,293 as SBI chief.

Pendergraft could not be reached for comment.

McLeod's priority

McLeod, 43, is Cooper's lobbyist at the legislature and former general counsel for the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. He starts work next week at the SBI, which has nearly 700 employees and 337 agents.

The bureau assists local law enforcement with complex or high-profile cases. It runs the state's crime lab, which performs DNA, bloodstain and other analysis in criminal cases.

McLeod's first order of business: Scrutinize the work of the six agents who are bloodstain pattern analysts. They examine the patterns left by a victim's or suspect's blood to discern how a crime occurred, and they testify on behalf of the state.

Deaver, the SBI's chief bloodstain pattern trainer, had been criticized for years by lawyers, judges and blood experts. He made headlines in February during Taylor's case. Taylor had been convicted in 1993 of killing a Southeast Raleigh woman. Taylor maintained his innocence, and this year a three-judge panel ordered him freed.

At Taylor's trial, jurors heard Deaver's conclusion that a stain on Taylor's truck was blood; Deaver didn't turn over lab notes showing he performed more sophisticated tests that in fact ruled the substance was not blood.

Last fall, a federal judge ruled that Deaver also botched the case of George Goode. Deaver provided "false and misleading testimony" in Goode's 1993 capital trial, testifying that a stain was blood without running conclusive tests to prove it.

The impact of the suspended bloodstain pattern analysis on pending prosecutions was not clear Thursday.

Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory said prosecutors do not rely heavily on such bloodstain analysis. He said most of his cases involving blood rely on more concrete forensic science, such as DNA. Vickory, a veteran prosecutor, hadn't been alerted about problems with the analysis and the suspension of its work.

Diane Savage, a Chapel Hill lawyer, said she wished the SBI had addressed issues with bloodstain pattern analysis years ago when she raised issues about it during the Goode case.

"It's almost too little, too late," Savage said. "I flagged these problems for years, and they attacked me for it."

Other defense lawyers met Thursday's changes with guarded optimism.

"There needed to be a change at the top," said David Rudolf, a Charlotte lawyer who has twice sued the SBI for misconduct by agents. "But they need to bring in an outsider, not someone from the Department of Justice, no matter how well-intentioned that person is. ... They need to bring someone in to clean house and change the culture."

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927

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