Even though a News & Observer series and a shocking audit of cases handled by the State Bureau of Investigation's crime lab have demonstrated that SBI analysts have long seen themselves as members of the prosecution "team" in court, those prosecutors recognize that tainted evidence undermines the entire system of justice. Therefore, the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys now has called for an independent audit of all parts of the SBI's forensic lab, which finds its credibility in tatters.
There should be no question of, or resistance to, such an audit. Already, more than 200 cases have been identified where SBI blood analysts didn't tell the whole story. The SBI lab's treatment of ballistics evidence also has been called into question.
The latest case examined in detail by The N&O and reported on Sunday was that of Derrick Allen, who copped a plea in the 1998 death of his girlfriend's daughter in Durham. One of Allen's own lawyers wrote to prosecutors in the course of an appeal in 2009 that the death was the result of Allen shaking the child violently but that it did not involve "malice and/or premeditation."
Tales of blood
Allen, facing a possible death penalty, nevertheless made a deal that got him a long prison sentence in exchange for guilty pleas to the murder and sexual assault of that 2-year-old girl. In making that deal, prosecutors said they had strong evidence thanks to a pair of blood-stained panties and bloody pajamas that had been cited in an SBI lab report.
But records show that when the SBI performed tests to confirm earlier ones, the tests were negative for blood three times. The negative tests were not mentioned in the agency's final report. Apparently, the negative findings were in rough notes that were available to prosecutors and to defense lawyers, The N&O reported, but they're difficult to look for, and no one raised questions about them before the plea deal.
One prosecutor in the case was Freda Black, who declined comment to The N&O in part because she's running for a judgeship in Durham. It would be a serious matter if Black knew about the SBI's negative findings when she emphasized in court the significance of blood evidence in assessing Allen's crime.
The manipulation of lab tests results naturally doesn't mean that in all the prosecutions involving tainted SBI lab work the defendants were innocent. But problematic evidence, before or after the fact, does damage a prosecutor's case. It also can affect plea bargains and sentences.
No wonder, then, that the state conference of district attorneys has in effect linked arms with defense attorneys and some judges who have questioned the SBI's lab work in the past.
The justifiable controversy that has arisen because of the mess in the SBI lab and the testimony based on that mess isn't in the end just about whether the lab is functioning as it should. It's about the integrity of the agency and the people who work in this critical area of investigative science. (And yes, it's unfortunate that those who are competent and do not see themselves as arms of the prosecution are hurt by recent reports, but they are.)
It is about the need to draw a line between prosecutors and laboratory science so that the first does not control the second. It is about keeping all those who participate in the administering of the criminal justice system, whether they be prosecutors or defense attorneys, aimed solely at the truth and nothing but the truth.