Whose side?

The SBI lab should deal only in forensic science, not in taking sides with the prosecution.

August 13, 2010 

Part three of The News & Observer's series on the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab shined a spotlight on something defense attorneys and some judges have complained about for years: the SBI lab seems at times to be as much about obtaining a conviction as it is about gathering scientific information to find the truth. That is wrong, and the culture must change.

One proposal would have the lab be independent, not under the control of law enforcement or the Attorney General's Office. That's a minority practice among the states, 38 of which have forensic labs structured much like North Carolina's.

Independence might be an answer to woeful problems at the lab, but what's really needed are straight-shooting scientists and investigators who alter their mindsets so that they see themselves not as members of the prosecution "team" but as people seeking good science and good evidence, whether they favor the case brought by prosecutors or not.

A glaring example of what can happen when scientific investigators go into a case believing it's their job to help convict a defendant is the case of Gregory Taylor, wrongfully convicted of a 1991 murder based in part on blood evidence that wasn't really blood evidence - a fact that an SBI serologist withheld from the court.

Other cases have shown a dangerous sloppiness. Consider the example of Leslie Lincoln, accused of her mother's murder in 2004 after the SBI lab marked her as a suspect because of a DNA profile from a bloodstain. Lincoln's lawyer asked for a rerun of the test, and was told, he says, that the SBI would retest only if a judge or prosecutor requested it. The lawyer got a judge to so order. It turned out that the lab had made an elementary mistake; the DNA was not Lincoln's. She was acquitted.

Yet SBI lab Director Jerry Richardson continues to defend what is clearly a status quo with serious problems. He should not be in charge of the lab if he can't even recognize those problems exist.

Even the training manual used by the SBI is geared toward making agents and even scientists prosecutors' allies. Consider this excerpt from yesterday's story: "Tell the D.A. in advance of any weaknesses in the case so that the trial of the case can be planned to minimize the weaknesses' impact."

That's from a manual that coaches analysts how to testify. Now-former SBI Director Robin Pendergraft told reporters she had never seen the manual. Cooper replaced her, and new SBI Director Greg McLeod has suspended use of the manual.

That's well and good, but what's really the problem here is a pervasive attitude of "us against them," us being prosecutors and the SBI and them being defense lawyers. That's stacking the legal deck. Rerunning tests ought not to require the approval of a judge, except in extraordinary circumstances. Prosecutors' "reviews" should not be part of the certification process for analysts, which is now the case. In effect that pressures the analysts to curry favor with one side.

The SBI crime lab is in need of new direction. Its own credibility and that of the evidence it gathers are on the line.

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