Distrust of SBI appears in court

Prosecutors, judges and lawyers expect repercussions for years to come.

Staff WritersAugust 24, 2010 

  • The SBI has been under scrutiny since February, when Greg Taylor, a Wake County man, was exonerated of murder after SBI Agent Duane Deaver said it was common practice to withhold test results in blood analysis.

    The News & Observer reported this month in a four-part series about widespread problems at the SBI. The report revealed agents bullying the vulnerable, analysts ignoring the confines of science and policies and procedures biased toward prosecutors.

    Last week, Attorney General Roy Cooper released a damning audit of the blood analysis unit. Two former FBI agents found a systematic practice of withholding critical blood tests in reports presented to prosecutors as recently as 2003. As many as 230 cases have been tainted.

    Cooper and his new SBI director, Greg McLeod, promised swift action. On Friday, McLeod fired the head of the SBI forensic crime lab and launched a search to find his replacement. He removed from casework three analysts targeted in the audit of the blood analysis unit; another was suspended. McLeod said he will order audits of other lab sections.

Last Thursday, Johnston County defense attorney Mike Reece demanded the courts put the brakes on his client's trial, which was set to start at the end of this month.

Reece's argument: He no longer trusted the work of the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

An SBI analyst had linked his client to the drug-trafficking charge through DNA evidence. Reece wanted more information and time to consult a DNA expert.

"All this information came from the SBI, and we all know what they say doesn't matter anymore. They have no credibility now," Reece said in an interview Monday.

It is a scene expected to play out in courtrooms across the state in the coming months as attacks on the SBI's credibility reverberate. Judges anticipate a slew of motions from prisoners seeking a review of their cases, citing problems over SBI analysis. Prosecutors are trying to figure out how to defend SBI agents and analysts, often their star witnesses in front of juries.

And defense attorneys like Reece are casting a more skeptical eye on forensic science offered up by the state's crime lab.

The prosecutor agreed to Reece's request to delay the trial. And, Monday, a 400-page stack of reports and raw DNA data arrived from the SBI.

This month, the News & Observer revealed problems at the SBI in a series, Agents' Secrets. The report revealed agents bending the truth or pushing past the accepted limits of scientific analysis to deliver answers pleasing to prosecutors. Last week, a damning audit of the SBI's blood analysis unit found 230 cases since 1987 botched by analysts who withheld critical evidence from prosecutors and defendants.

Evaluating those cases will be a task that stretches for years to come.

Mary Pollard, executive director of Prisoner Legal Services, which is taking the lead on reviewing problem cases, said the reviews are getting under way. The passage of time promises to bring challenges that will be tough to overcome. Some of the evidence has been lost or damaged. Witnesses from 20 years ago will be tough to track down.

"It will take a long time to get this sorted out," she said.

The revelations of major SBI problems will burden nearly every player in the criminal justice system.

The rebuilding of trust

"The mindset has changed," said Seth Edwards, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys and district attorney in Beaufort County. "We'll encounter jurors who won't believe in the SBI anymore. There is a rebuilding of trust that will have to take place, and that won't happen overnight."

Tom Lock, senior resident superior court judge in Johnston County, said judges must give credence to defense lawyer requests for experts and will need to carefully consider claims brought by inmates alleging that SBI error brought their conviction.

"It's incumbent on us to seriously consider challenges on scientific evidence," said Lock, who ordered the SBI documents be provided in Reece's case.

The cost of such challenges is hard to gauge, though court officials anticipate more defense attorneys will request money to hire experts to review the SBI's work.

In the last fiscal year, the state paid $665,000 for scientific experts to consult with defense attorneys in cases in which clients were too poor to afford those costs; $500,000 of that went to capital cases. Court officials anticipate that cost to skyrocket, unless the crime lab is removed from the auspices of the SBI and the state Attorney General.

Last week, Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who was first elected in 2000, said he was now open to the idea of making the lab independent. He had previously resisted calls for independence.

The most immediate affect of the SBI's problems on the courts won't likely be expense or a rash of requests for new trials. Instead, it is the diminished standing of an agency that once enjoyed a solid reputation.

On Friday in Johnston County, Lock, the judge, presided over a hearing in the first-degree murder case against Luis Hernandez.

Lock asked defense attorney John Britt Jr. whether the defense would raise any issues regarding the blood evidence gathered and analyzed by the SBI, according to Robin Kirk, an investigator working for Hernandez.

"Britt said, 'I really don't know yet whether we have any issues with science, or pseudo-science'," Kirk said. "The courtroom broke into laughter, even the bailiff."

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

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