Inspectors missed all SBI faults

Accreditation agency led by former SBI agents

Staff WritersAugust 26, 2010 

  • Several agencies accredited by ASCLD-LAB have had problems in recent years:

    NEW YORK: In 2008, an ASCLD-LAB auditor discovered that a fiber analyst at the N.Y. State Police crime lab in Albany was incompetent. The analyst, Gary Veeder, couldn't explain basic tasks or perform them on a microscope. The auditor issued three serious deficiency warnings, putting the lab's accreditation in jeopardy.

    To keep its accreditation, the state police shut down the fiber analysis subsection, and Veeder retired. ASCLD-LAB accredited the lab. A subsequent investigation by the New York Inspector General's Office found widespread problems in supervision and training. Most troubling, Veeder was "dry labbing," or reporting results of tests he never conducted. Veeder, who had evaded detection during previous ASCLD-LAB audits, committed suicide during the inspector general's investigation.

    SAN FRANCISCO: ASCLD-LAB accredited the San Francisco police crime lab in 2005. In February, ASCLD-LAB extended that accreditation for six months. In March, San Francisco police shut down the lab's drug unit after an analyst was arrested for stealing drugs. Outside audits found that drug technicians had caseloads five to seven times the national average and had big problems securing evidence and ensuring the chain of custody.

    BALTIMORE: In 2008, the Baltimore Police Department fired the director of its crime lab because crime analysts had been contaminating evidence with their own DNA for years, unbeknownst to supervisors. The lab had never entered the DNA profiles of employees into its database, a standard practice for laboratories to detect contaminated tests. Ralph Keaton, head of ASCLD-LAB, said at the time that maintaining an employee database was not a requirement for accreditation, but was so fundamental that not doing so was unheard of. The lab is accredited by ASCLD-LAB.

  • This week, ASCLD-LAB alerted the SBI that it wants proof that it is addressing recent issues that have come to light in an audit and media reports.

    Mike Grubb, chairman of ASCLD-LAB and director of the San Diego Police Crime Lab, said the SBI has 30 days to tell him how it is addressing issues recently highlighted in its blood analysis unit and in a recent court case that showed analysts bypassing chemical tests before certifying prescription drugs in lab reports.

    "We'll have an investigator make sure they are doing all they can on these fronts," Grubb said.

    Grubb said he also wants clarification on questions raised in their firearms unit.

  • In its recent series, "Agents' Secrets," The News & Observer revealed widespread problems at the SBI. The report showed agents bullying the vulnerable, analysts ignoring the confines of science and policies and procedures biased toward prosecutors.

    Last week, Attorney General Roy Cooper released an audit of the blood analysis unit that 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.

    Last month, after questions from The N&O, Cooper replaced SBI director Robin Pendergraft with Greg McLeod. McLeod has since removed the head of the SBI lab and launched a search to find his replacement. He removed three analysts from casework and suspended another. McLeod said he will order audits of other lab sections.

The only outsiders invited to review the work of the State Bureau of Investigation's lab for the past 20 years missed all the problems revealed this month by two former FBI agents and newspaper reporters.

No one at the accreditation agency, or others familiar with its work, seems to be surprised.

ASCLD-LAB, a group led by former SBI agents and based in Johnston County, is the leading accreditation agency for crime labs nationwide. But it reviews cases selected by supervisors in the agency being audited, and it does that only every five years.

"Am I surprised we didn't see a problem? Not really," said Michael Grubb, chairman of ASCLD-LAB and director of the San Diego Police Crime Lab. "Every case they work is not examined. It's a relatively small number."

The SBI's certification through ASCLD-LAB is a signal to the world that the crime lab's work is sound. Leaders wear it as a badge of honor, often citing ASCLD-LAB's seal of approval as proof of good work.

The significance of that accreditation is now in question.

"There's this idea that ASCLD-LAB is infallible and the oracle of all accreditation," said Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director who conducted the blood analysis audit. "It was surprising to me that they didn't get a better sense of what was going on in the lab all those years."

The SBI laboratory's work has come under fire this summer, shattering any notion that its work is unblemished. The News & Observer reported this month that analysts have bent rules and pushed past the bounds of accepted science to deliver reports that bolstered prosecutors' cases. Last week, Attorney General Roy Cooper, who supervises the SBI, released the audit of the blood analysis unit, which revealed that eight analysts over 16 years failed to report the results of more sophisticated tests that had undermined their initial findings.

Auditors found 230 cases tainted by a practice sanctioned by policy and leadership.

ASCLD-LAB is headed by two former SBI agents. Ralph Keaton and John Neuner say they recuse themselves from all SBI matters.

Swecker, in his audit, called the supervision at the lab's blood analysis unit between 1987 and 2003 "ineffective" and lacking in "oversight." Part of the oversight at that time would have been provided by Keaton and Neuner.

Cozy origins

The headquarters ASCLD-LAB sits in a modest Johnston County office complex so close to Interstate 40 that rumbling tractor-trailers provide background noise.

The office is there because Keaton, ASCLD-LAB's first paid employee, put down roots a few miles down the road.

Keaton was No. 2 at the SBI crime lab until 1995. Neuner held the same post before leaving in 2001. Michael Creasy, a third former SBI agent, joined ASCLD-LAB after Neuner.

ASCLD-LAB was formed in the 1980s as forensic crime lab directors tried to organize and adopt basic standards "before someone else set them for us," Keaton said earlier this summer. Keaton was North Carolina's point person in those talks.

The first wave of forensic labs was accredited in the late 1980s; today, 364 forensic crime labs in the U.S. are accredited through ASCLD-LAB, making it by far the largest accrediting agency in forensic science.

Through five separate accreditation reviews, auditors sent to North Carolina by ASCLD-LAB found nothing like the picture revealed in recent independent audits and news reports.

Earlier this summer, Keaton spoke with confidence about the SBI's quality of work, dismissing questions about problems illuminated in February when SBI analyst Duane Deaver was criticized for withholding critical blood evidence. In that case, Greg Taylor, a Wake County man, spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, in part because Deaver withheld results of blood tests that were favorable to Taylor.

"I don't think there are a large number of cases in which there's been a miscarriage of justice," Keaton said. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of innocence."

Every five years, a team of forensic scientists from crime labs in other states come to the SBI lab to inspect its work. They study policy manuals, double check first-aid kits and review the layout of the lab. They check each criterion they meet and note shortcomings they expect to be fixed.

For each unit, inspectors examine five cases for each analyst. They allow lab supervisors to select the cases.

"They can cherry pick," said Randall Robbins, a retired lab official from the Illinois Police crime lab who performed audits for ASCLD-LAB. "They also can sanitize the files. Any lab across the country can dress it up and make it look as pretty as it wants."

Robbins, who now lives in Johnston County, said he asked for additional cases to review for his inspections but said not all auditors do that.

Grubb, ASCLD-LAB chairman, said pulling cases at random is more time-consuming.

Because audits are conducted by peers in the forensic community, some fear that there's an expectation to be gentle or pay for it when your lab is examined.

"There's congeniality in this profession and perhaps a reluctance to do a hard audit," said Swecker, the former FBI assistant director.

ASCLD-LAB is often reluctant to be the heavy. Grubb, chairman of the group, said it wants every lab to achieve accreditation and works hard to help them get there. Rarely do they yank certification.

ASCLD-LAB fields complaints from citizens - often lawyers or other scientists - about poor work by member labs. It initiates investigations but keeps them confidential.

Diane Savage, a Chapel Hill lawyer, filed complaints with ASCLD-LAB about three SBI cases. While ASCLD-LAB officials acknowledged receipt of her complaints, she was never informed of any resolution. Savage said she now doesn't bother.

"Over the years, I've concluded that they are hopeless and won't fix the problem but will just finesse," Savage said. "I don't have any faith or hope."

Database manager David Raynor contributed to this report. or 919-829-8927

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