For 21 years, a key group of State Bureau of Investigation agents tasked with interpreting bloodstain patterns at crime scenes operated on their own, without leadership or written policies.
The News & Observer requested a copy of the bloodstain analysis policy in July. The Department of Justice, which oversees the SBI, provided it late last week. The policy was dated October 2009, eight weeks after the acquittal of a Clemmons dentist highlighted shoddy bloodstain analysis.
Eric Hooks, assistant SBI director, said it was the agency's first policy involving bloodstain pattern analysis.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Roy Cooper wouldn't discuss the lack of policy or bureau leadership, saying the unit was under investigation. Cooper said the group's work remains suspended until he's convinced that their work is scientific and unbiased.
"I was concerned about the potential of influence of prosecutors on the opinions of some SBI agents regarding this science," Cooper said.
The SBI's bloodstain pattern analysts were scrutinized in an N&O series exposing how agents and analysts conducted bizarre experiments or crafted reports to fit the prosecution's theory. The focus of the report was the 2009 murder case of Kirk Turner in Davie County, in which agents Duane Deaver and Gerald Thomas conducted unscientific experiments and Thomas wrote an inaccurate report about the crime scene.
The jury foreman, a self-described law-and-order man, said the work of this SBI unit amounted to "fraud."
Not under crime lab
The work of the SBI's bloodstain pattern analysts does not fall under the agency's crime lab, which has come under widespread criticism and scrutiny that threatens cases both pending and concluded. This unit was not included in a recent audit that found that SBI lab analysts withheld or misreported the results of blood tests in at least 230 cases.
That audit, by two retired FBI supervisors, focused on evidence withheld from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The problem with the bloodstain pattern analysts is the question of junk science.
Seth Edwards, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said Wednesday that he was concerned that problems extended beyond the SBI lab.
"At this point, everything at the SBI is open for discussion," Edwards said.
The lack of policy is "astounding," said Marilyn Miller, a professor of forensic science at Virginia Commonwealth University. "If you are a reputable unit, you have written procedures for everything you do."
Dozens of cases where SBI bloodstain analysts testified are under question, she said.
New lab director
Also on Wednesday, Cooper appointed an interim director of the SBI lab while a national search for a permanent director continues. The temporary director is Gerald Arnold, retired chief judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals. Cooper said he has ordered Arnold to search for discrepancies between lab reports and analysts' notes. Those discrepancies were at the heart of the audit.
Cooper said he has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to audit the SBI's lab work in DNA and firearms.
The SBI lab is currently accredited by ASCLD-LAB, an agency based in Garner. Cooper also said he has ordered the SBI lab to reach the more rigorous standards of the International Organization for Standardization in 2011, two years earlier than scheduled.
Deaver, who trained the agency's bloodstain pattern analysts, played a key role in cases now under question because of the audit and reports about the troubled bloodstain analysis unit. The audit found that he withheld from his lab reports test results that were favorable to defendants in several cases. Deaver is suspended pending investigation.
Deaver and a protégé played a key role Turner's 2009 trial.
Turner said he killed his wife in self defense after she attacked him with a 7-foot spear. Prosecutors had a different theory: Turner had slit his wife's throat, wiped the knife on his shirt, and then staged self-defense by ramming the 18-inch blade through his thigh, twice.
Deaver and his protégé, Thomas, embraced the prosecutors' theory. Thomas quietly changed his initial report, which had been consistent with self-defense. After a renowned bloodstain pattern expert disagreed with Thomas, Deaver and Thomas conducted unscientific tests to shore up the prosecution. Thomas stuck to the story, even after it became clear that he had filed an erroneous account of the crime scene.
The jury, stunned by the SBI's conduct, quickly acquitted Turner.
Hooks, the assistant SBI director, said the timing of the new policy had nothing to do with the Turner trial.
But Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh lawyer who helped defend Turner, said the timing was evident.
"It's extraordinarily bothersome that the agency clearly had no management over them," Cheshire said. "The work of these analysts was abysmally creative, with no semblance of caring about the truth."
Cheshire pointed to the videotaped lab tests performed by Thomas and Deaver, who sought to re-create the stain on Turner's shirt.
At the end of a second test, Deaver exclaims: "Oh, even better, holy cow, that was a good one. Beautiful. That's a wrap, baby."
"If it wasn't a murder trial," Cheshire said, "you could watch the video and laugh."
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