Busting pumpkins, telling testimony

August 10, 2010 

A sampling of SBI testimony raises questions about the tactics of lab analysts and agents:

Unreal testing

At the trial of Kirk Turner, charged with killing his wife, defense attorney Brad Bannon questioned SBI agent Gerald Thomas about tests done in the SBI lab trying to re-create a bloodstain on Kirk Turner's T-shirt.

Bannon: "Are you trying to re-create a stain where every single part of the knife is clean except the edges?"

Thomas: "Mostly, yes."

Bannon: "Does that happen in life?"

Thomas: "I don't know."

Amended, not changed

Bannon also questioned why Thomas secretly changed an earlier report without mentioning that he re-examined the evidence and changed his conclusions.

Bannon: "I am not trying to be sarcastic or anything, but do you in your line of work at the SBI when you fundamentally change your opinion about a bloodstain pattern and create a separate report about it, are you not trained to label it like supplemental report or in any way flag in the report that 'I have change my mind about this'?"

Thomas: "No sir, no specific titles."

Bannon: "So you keep the same date on it and you keep the same date of activity on it, but you just change the report without noting it in any way? That's the way you are taught at the SBI to do it?"

Thomas: "Currently. Yes, if it is an amended report, it is not changed."

It's the law, but ...

SBI agent Dwight Ransome said under oath that he didn't pay attention to exculpatory evidence, which favors the defense and by law must be shared. In the civil case brought by Alan Gell, Ransome testified that he didn't give any thought to witnesses who said the murder victim, Allen Ray Jenkins, was alive after Gell had been locked in jail.

Barry Scheck: "When you were talking with [the district attorney], didn't you know that any statement that you had in your possession that was of a witness who said he or she had seen Jenkins alive after April 3, that statement was exculpatory?"

Ransome: "Did I know that?"

Scheck: "Yeah. Do you know that now?"

Ransome: "That's not something I was focusing on. I'm not sure I even thought about that. That's not something I would think about during an investigation."

Scheck: "You wouldn't think about the statement being exculpatory during an investigation?"

Ransome: "No. Why would I?"

He does it all the time

SBI serologist and blood spatter expert Duane Deaver testified in 2004 that he often testifies about the presence of blood without testing to confirm the substance is blood.

Diane Savage, a Chapel Hill lawyer: "And you recall that [your supervisor] Jerry Ratley has told you it's OK for you to tell the jury or a court something is blood without a confirmatory test?"

Duane Deaver: "He has not told me specifically that. I testify in courts all over the state to those matters, and he hasn't told me to stop doing it."

Savage: "So, you routinely testify around the state without doing a confirmatory test that something is blood?"

Deaver: "Absolutely. As a bloodstain pattern analyst expert, I'm routinely allowed by the judges in cases to do that."

Not here, you won't

In one of his first forays as an expert witness, Deaver was not allowed to testify. In the 1989 capital trial of Johnny Ray Braswell, Deaver performed experiments to prove that the state's star witness, John C. McNeil, had not beaten the victim to death with a two-by-four. Attorney William W. Gerrans, who represented Braswell, filed an affidavit about Deaver's unusual experiment:

"The problem was Mr. McNeil had bloodstains on his clothes," Gerrans wrote. "I remember his Fila Tennis Shoes in particular. Agent Deaver apparently went to a gymnasium of sort and with helpers hung and placed a number of white sheets.

"He then took pumpkins and struck them with a 2X4 size piece of wood. Based on this 're-enactment' or experiment or whatever it might be called, Agent Deaver was prepared to testify that based on his bloodstain analysis that John C. McNeil was merely present and Johnny Ray Braswell did all the beating. ... Judge [Donald] Stephens allowed our motion and did not allow Agent Deaver to testify about 'busting' the pumpkins."

Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke

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