SBI lab's prosecutorial slant still at issue

STAFF WRITERSAugust 19, 2010 

The damning audit of the State Bureau of Investigation lab released Wednesday covered only blood analysis, one of the six sections of the laboratory, and didn't address other problems at the agency.

Attorney General Roy Cooper has promised to hire outside DNA experts to review that section of the lab, but he has not yet committed to reviewing the entire lab.

Problems have surfaced in the firearms section of the SBI lab. The News & Observer reported on several problematic cases where SBI analysts matched bullets to a make of gun. A former firearms expert and chief metallurgist at the FBI said the SBI's work in a Pitt County murder case was "as bad as it can be" and questioned whether the SBI did any analysis at all.

Cooper has not announced any effort to examine the work of the firearms part of the lab.

Cooper also will have to contend with who runs the lab in the future. Legislators and defense attorneys have repeatedly called for removing the lab from the SBI and making it an independent entity loyal to science, not prosecutors. Cooper said Wednesday that he is open to all solutions.

"Everything should be on the table," he said.

Cooper said the legislature should reconsider whether people convicted of felonies before 2004 should be given full access to law enforcement files in their cases. The law was changed that year to give defendants full access, known as open file discovery, but the law did not apply retroactively.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing new SBI Director Greg McLeod is changing the culture of the SBI and the laboratory. Analysts have worked to support the theories of prosecutors, instead of rendering detached scientific analysis. Training manuals, some which have been withdrawn, have coached analysts to support prosecutors and distrust defense attorneys. This bias extended down to the very way analysts reported test results.

"They were writing reports to law enforcement," said Chris Swecker, the former FBI supervisor who audited the blood cases. "They were trying not to write any negative test results."

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