Barry Saunders

Saunders: SBI's dirty bill of health

OK, it's easy to understand why Attorney General Roy Cooper hasn't fired that Isley brother, but it's harder to figure out how Duane Deaver still has a job with the state.

Cooper, trying to restore some credibility and trust to the grievously besmeared State Bureau of Investigation and its forensic lab, obviously hasn't fired agent Mark Isley because of the pending civil suit by Floyd Brown, who spent years locked away after Isley produced a false confession Brown was incapable of constructing.

To fire him now would bolster Brown's case and ensure that the state will have to pay dearly for the injustice done him.

Isley is now a supervisor of a division investigating Medicaid fraud, a position from which he can still earn a pretty pay check and glide toward a comfortable retirement, but most likely can't deprive a poor, mentally challenged fellow of his liberty again.

The ultimate fates of Deaver, who was suspended Wednesday, and his protégés are not yet known, despite their apparent allegiance to prosecutors instead of truth and justice. Under Deaver's direction, the lab has been found to consistently withhold blood test results that didn't square with the prosecution's theories of crimes.

At a news conference Wednesday in which Cooper called a report on the SBI forensic lab "troubling" and promised corrective action, new SBI Director Greg McLeod said only that "appropriate personnel action will be taken" with analysts named in the review.

Translation: "As soon as we get these legal issues resolved, we're going to have these suckas on skates and headed toward the exits. On bacon grease."

SBI agent "Handsome" Dwight Ransome kept his job even after it was discovered that he'd dispensed with investigative techniques that any rookie cop - or even anyone who has ever watched "Matlock" - would have done in Alan Gell's capital murder case. After the state paid Gell $3.9 million for his years in prison, of course, the state allowed Ransome to retire.

Somehow, it's hard to picture Cooper clinging to his leg and begging, "Don't go, Handsome. We need the gravitas you lend to the department."

Chris Swecker, the attorney who oversaw the lab review, said much of the work done by Deaver and his protégés in the forensic lab "was scientifically correct but incomplete." He also said he found "no systemic problems in the DNA program."

It's unlikely that knowing that not everyone got a raw deal does much for inmates who feel they're incarcerated only because of analysts' hocus-pocus.

Isley, once he ceases feeding at the public trough, has a future writing fiction, although he'll have to go some to top what one writer - OK, it was I - called "an inconceivably lucid" confession from Floyd Brown. That masterpiece of deception put poor Floyd in Dorothea Dix for 14 years and didn't hamper Isley's rise up the SBI chain - despite decadelong doubt about its truthfulness.

Deaver, judging by the magic he performed for cops and prosecutors and his obvious desire to curry their favor, could join a circus as Eager Deaver the Magnificent.

Both Cooper and Swecker maintain that most of the problems that led to innocent people being imprisoned occurred "in the '80s and '90s. ... There is no evidence of current analysts' lack of objectivity," Swecker said.

Still, he admitted, "I can't issue a clean bill of health" to the lab.

Well, homes, that is precisely what the public deserves. Until we get it, North Carolina residents must wonder whether the people who are locked up or killed on their behalf got what they deserved - or were the victims of fiction and magic.