Gov. Bev Perdue on Thursday signed into law a series of reforms aimed at restoring credibility to the State Bureau of Investigation and upgrading scientific standards at the state's crime lab.
Some changes are symbolic: The lab, formerly known as the SBI Crime Laboratory, will be known as the North Carolina Crime Laboratory, to emphasize the point that its scientists work for the public and the entire criminal justice system, not just prosecutors and police.
Others are substantial: The lab must meet the highest international standards, and individual scientists and analysts must be certified in their field and receive regular training and competency tests.
"This will raise the competence, integrity and standards at the lab," said Christine Mumma, director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.
The law represents the first step by those outside the SBI at fixing problems that have erupted over the past year.
A News & Observer series published in August reported widespread problems at the bureau, including some agents who bullied the vulnerable and analysts who pushed past the bounds of science to deliver results that bolstered prosecutions.
An audit ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper of the blood analysis unit pinpointed more than 200 cases tainted by analysts who misstated or withheld test results that were favorable to the defendant. Seventy-four cases have been recently identified.
The audit was prompted by the case of Greg Taylor, who in February 2010 was exonerated of a 1991 murder, in large part because an SBI analyst withheld test results favorable to Taylor. An SBI agent's misconduct led in 2009 to a $3.9 million settlement with Alan Gell, a Bertie County man wrongfully put on death row. The bureau faces similar lawsuits that may result in even costlier outcomes.
Mumma, who helped represent Taylor, said the new law did not address her most fundamental concern: the independence of the crime lab.
New bill on oversight
On Thursday, state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, introduced a bill to remove the crime lab from the SBI, which is essentially a police agency, and have it report directly to the attorney general. The attorney general oversees the SBI.
"By creating an independent state forensics lab, we can better insulate this critical agency from undue outside influence, protecting the rights of innocent people while using the latest forensic advances to solve crimes," McKissick said.
The law Perdue signed Thursday did not address to whom the lab reports. The joint legislative committee that drafted the law wanted to maintain unanimity on the changes it proposed, which include:
Mandating that the crime lab disclose all notes, data and test results. Employees of the SBI and other law enforcement agencies who knowingly violate this could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice.
Creating an independent N.C. Forensic Science Advisory Board consisting solely of scientists with expertise in fields such as DNA, chemistry, autopsies and toxicology.
Removing ASCLD-LAB as the sole accrediting agency for the crime lab. The Garner-based agency, which is run by former SBI agents, has come under criticism for not detecting systemic problems in the crime lab. Cooper and the SBI have said that the lab will meet international standards this year.
"Removing ASCLD-LAB's monopoly on policing the lab is quite good," said Mike Klinkosum, a Raleigh defense lawyer who also represented Taylor. "There has been an extremely cozy relationship that hasn't been good for science."
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