Under the Dome

Politics, new study prompt call for crime lab review

Rep. Marilyn Avila, left,poses a question as a speaker gives an update on the health information exchange implementation during the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 18, 2015. Rep. Dean Arp listens at right.
Rep. Marilyn Avila, left,poses a question as a speaker gives an update on the health information exchange implementation during the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 18, 2015. Rep. Dean Arp listens at right. cseward@newsobserver.com

A Republican legislator on Wednesday called on the General Assembly and the N.C. Department of Justice to conduct a sweeping review of the State Crime Lab, in light of a new federal report that found pervasive weaknesses in forensic science across the country.

Rep. Marilyn Avila’s remarks were delivered through a couple of layers of politics: She spoke at a GOP news conference attacking Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper for problems at the lab, and she is running for re-election against the former lab director, Joe John.

Avila, a chemist who lives in Raleigh, never mentioned John in her remarks and only passingly criticized Cooper, who is running for governor. She focused on the larger concerns raised in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report, which was released Tuesday.

The report found the analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, firearms, footwear and hair was scientifically flawed and falls short of establishing truth in the courtroom. The use of that evidence through expert witness testimony is pervasive in criminal trials, and TV shows have given the impression that the science is infallible.

“It’s pretty damning, in the sense that so much of that can’t be scientifically validated,” she said. “I think what we as a legislature need to do now is to step back and take a very hard look at our lab and how the whole system of forensic science is changing and begin to move in the direction of sticking with true science.

“In so many of these cases peoples’ lives and their freedom is at stake, and we can’t be careless about that.”

Avila was joined by newly appointed Republican state Rep. Holly Grange of Wilmington and GOP communications director Kami Mueller. They criticized the lab for the time it takes to test rape evidence, which they said is unsettling to the victims and leads to delays and extra costs in the criminal justice system.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the average turnaround time to test evidence is now 7 1/2 months, which includes all crimes, from simple impaired driving to complex homicide cases. It can be done faster if police or prosecutors request a rush. Prior to 2004, there was such a backup that no new requests were being accepted.

Republicans acknowledged that Cooper inherited many of the problems in the crime lab when he became attorney general 16 years ago, but contend he has been slow to react to long-running problems. An independent audit commissioned by Cooper found tainted blood evidence in 230 cases, all but 11 of which had been closed by the time he took office.

Avila said a recent story by The News & Observer illustrated other problems. It described an accreditation agency report from 2010 that found problems with the way the ballistics lab was documenting its work. She said that was a serious lapse in scientific protocol.

“There is always a possibility of appeal and retrial,” she said. “Without written or photographic or audio documentation you’re at the mercy of faulty memory and missing and deceased analysts. You’re shortchanging the system by not having a documentation trail that you can follow.”

Problems in the crime lab and the State Bureau of Investigation surfaced six years ago in a series by The N&O. Over the next two years, Cooper made substantial changes at the lab.

The crime lab has become a focal point of Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election campaign. He and Cooper have lobbed TV ads at each other with competing versions of the lab’s history. Cooper’s spokesman on Wednesday discounted the GOP news conference and said the governor’s proposed budgets have underfunded the crime lab’s budget requests by 35 percent since 2013.

“This is just another desperate and dishonest attack from Governor McCrory and his allies,” Ford Porter said in an email. “The truth is, Roy Cooper cleared a backlog of more than five thousand DNA test kits that existed when he took over the crime lab and put thousands of criminals in prison.”

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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