Discredited SBI analyst leaves old cases in doubt

A discredited former SBI bloodstain analyst had a hand in many murder trials.

Staff WriterFebruary 21, 2011 

Every case former State Bureau of Investigation Agent Duane Deaver touched is now a potential land mine for the bureau - and the courts.

Last week, the first in an expected wave of challenges hit the courts when a lawyer for Michael Peterson sought to discredit Deaver's extensive testimony from a 2003 trial.

Deaver was fired in January. Independent auditors found he withheld testing results; a commission investigating an innocence claim says he lied to their members, and defense lawyers say he has helped manipulate evidence to bolster prosecutors' cases.

The effects of Deaver's shattered credibility will likely be felt far and wide, forcing some district attorneys to revisit cases long settled or hamstringing prosecutors in cases that haven't yet reached a jury.

"It creates a huge problem for every case that [Deaver] touched," said Jessica Smith, an expert on witness issues at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In Durham, Peterson, a novelist convicted of beating his wife to death, is asking for a new trial, saying jurors had been wrongly led to believe that Deaver was a stand-up guy who would tell the truth about his interpretations of bloodstain patterns. In Wake County, prosecutors will have to figure out what to do about Deaver's bloodstain pattern analysis in the 2006 death of Michelle Young, a pregnant woman whose husband, Jason Young, is expected to be tried for her killing in May.

Deaver, 51, has become the public face of an agency rocked by accusations of widespread mishandling of evidence. For 22 years, he trained the agency's bloodstain pattern analysts and led that unit, which was suspended last summer by Attorney General Roy Cooper because of questions about its work. Deaver has acknowledged not reporting key blood evidence to prosecutors in the case of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man who spent 17 years in prison for murder before being exonerated last year.

Deaver's attorneys defend his work and will contest his termination.

"We believe Duane is the subject of a miscarriage of justice," said Philip Isley, Deaver's attorney, who said that Deaver had been maligned for following his bosses' orders and agency policies.

Isley said that he hopes the Attorney General's Office will defend Deaver's work and that Deaver will assist if he is asked.

Beyond Deaver

Deaver's demise began last February, during the exoneration hearing of Taylor, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1993. At the hearing, Deaver acknowledged to a trio of judges that he had not told prosecutors in 1991 that sophisticated blood tests he performed suggested there was no blood on the suspect's SUV. Jurors were repeatedly told in Taylor's 1993 trial that blood was found on his vehicle.

Deaver also testified that he was doing what his bosses told him to do.

Cooper, who oversees the SBI, ordered an audit of the lab's serology unit. Two former FBI officials pinpointed 229 cases involving faulty reporting of blood evidence. The cases deemed most egregious were handled by Deaver. All told, he was involved in 33 cases identified in the audit as requiring new review.

Branny Vickory, district attorney for Wayne County, expects at least one of those long-resolved cases in the audit to come before a judge.

Marcus Carter is in prison for life for a 1989 murder and attempted rape in Goldsboro. Carter was initially sentenced to death, but Gov. Jim Hunt commuted his sentence to life in 2000 amid concerns about the fairness of his trial.

According to the audit, Deaver's former co-worker, Brenda Bissette, handled the serology work in Carter's case, which auditors found failed to reveal a negative result on a confirmatory blood test. Bissette no longer works for the SBI.

Vickory anticipates questions of credibility to arise in cases pinpointed by the audit, and not just about Deaver.

Vickory said the Attorney General's Office has offered no guidance about how to handle questions of credibility that will be raised about Deaver and his former co-workers. He said he hopes that will come.

A broad reach

Deaver was prolific.

He joined the SBI out of college in 1987 and spent his entire career working at the SBI, hop-scotching from jobs in the serology unit to head of the bloodstain pattern analysis program. In recent years, he worked as a criminal profiler, helping local law enforcement officers come up with a psychological profile of a criminal capable of committing certain crimes. He also coordinated training for agents.

And, his legacy reached further than the cases he actually worked. Deaver trained all SBI agents and analysts the agency assigned to conduct bloodstain pattern analysis. Five other agents still employed by the SBI were available to analyze blood patterns at crime scenes as of August.

For 21 years, until 2009, that program operated with no policies or procedures.

Cooper, the attorney general, suspended the program in July, days after SBI leaders were confronted with questions about the program by The News & Observer.

"I was concerned about the potential of influence of prosecutors on the opinions of some SBI agents regarding the science," Cooper said in September. He said he would keep the program out of commission until he was satisfied that their work is scientific and unbiased. SBI Director Greg McLeod said that the SBI is still reviewing the bloodstain program and hasn't yet decided whether or when they will restart it.

Freezing that program left prosecutors in 29 cases in a particularly difficult position. The SBI provided the number of bloodstain pattern cases by district but declined to provide information about those cases. The bureau also declined to provide a list of Deaver's cases that are still pending.

Big case in Wake

If prosecutors try to use bloodstain pattern evidence at trial, they will likely face a barrage of questions about the validity of the science and the SBI's qualifications to administer it. For those cases involving Deaver, prosecutors could have an even bigger fight.

Howard Cummings, senior assistant district attorney in Wake County, said he's unsure how he will handle Deaver's involvement in the Young case and hadn't yet made any determinations about how critical it is to their case. Defense attorneys for Jason Young declined to comment.

Michelle Young was found in a pool of blood in her home in southern Wake County in 2006. Her 2-year-old daughter, who was unhurt, tracked through her mother's blood and left footprints through the house.

Investigators have said in search warrants that a footprint matching shoes Jason Young owned was also at the house. It took investigators three years to build their case and arrest Young in his wife's slaying.

Smith, the witness expert, said prosecutors across the state will likely avoid bringing Deaver into court as a witness, hoping to avoid assaults on his credibility. Cummings, the prosecutor, declined to say what he would do in the Young case.

But substituting another expert could also be a challenge.

The Constitution says that defendants have a right to confront witnesses at trial. North Carolina courts have typically held that if the original forensic expert is unavailable, the replacement must do more than simply sign off on the first analyst's reports.

If that means the substitute expert must perform his own analysis, that promises to be a costly and complicated affair in bloodstain pattern analysis.

"It's a daunting task to look at an old case," said Stuart James, a nationally renowned bloodstain pattern analyst who consults on many post-conviction cases. "The scene isn't available, and you have to rely on another person's documentation. And, if their credibility is in question, you have to take that into consideration, too."

The Peterson case

In preparation for Peterson's 2003 trial, Deaver's work was extensive. He slammed bloody plastic foam mannequin heads against a wooden chair to study how the blood spread.

For the trial, he built a small replica of the Petersons' staircase to explain his theory that Peterson beat his wife with a blow poke before she hit her head on the stairs. He constructed diagrams of the scene and blood-stained poster boards and paraded them before jurors.

Deaver also studied Peterson's clothes. He told jurors that stains on Peterson's shorts suggested he had beaten her to death before she fell.

He was on the witness stand for eight days.

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

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

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