Special Reports

New SBI chief removes lab director, suspends more analysts

The head of the SBI crime lab lost his job Friday, another move in a regime change that leaders promise will bring new standards and attitudes to the state's forensic laboratory.

Greg McLeod, on his fifth day at work as SBI director, removed Jerry Richardson as lab director and launched a nationwide search for his replacement.

"Jerry Richardson is a friend and has done good work, but we are moving forward," McLeod said in an interview. McLeod said Richardson, for the moment, still has a job with the SBI, but he will soon decide whether Richardson has a future with the agency.

McLeod also ordered three veteran blood and DNA analysts to step away from their work until he investigates their parts in a 16-year practice of withholding critical evidence in their lab reports. Among those analysts being investigated: Suzi Barker, an assistant supervisor in the DNA unit. McLeod had ordered a case-by-case review of their work.

Duane Deaver, another blood analyst who has come under intense criticism, was suspended with pay Wednesday pending further internal investigation. During his 30-day suspension he is required to cooperate with the investigation, McLeod said.

Last month, Cooper removed SBI Director Robin Pendergraft days after she struggled to explain agency practices and flawed cases in an interview with The News & Observer.

The personnel shuffle follows a series of reports questioning the credibility and fairness of the SBI lab. The News & Observer reported this month in a series, "Agents' Secrets," that analysts have bent rules and pushed past the bounds of science to deliver results pleasing to prosecutors. They have cheated, twisted the truth and, in some cases, ignored evidence that pointed to a defendant's innocence. On Wednesday, a scathing audit identified 230 cases potentially botched by hidden evidence.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has overseen the SBI since 2001, said Friday that enough is enough. He wants new rules, strong science and a staff that is held accountable if they refuse to heed criticism from the outside.

"I expect SBI leadership and prosecutors to take appropriate action when SBI agents don't perform as they should," Cooper said. "Obviously this hasn't been done as much as it should have been done in the last 25 or more years at the SBI. That's going to change."

In addition to personnel changes, McLeod has called on ASCLD-LAB, a national lab certification agency, to audit the work of the firearms and toolmark identification unit, which will include troubling cases recently detailed by The N&O. That group is headed by Ralph Keaton, an SBI veteran who was No. 2 at the lab in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "People at the SBI lab need to be open-minded and open to criticism," McLeod said. "If they don't get on board, they need to consider other work."

Changes at the lab were met with cautious optimism by defense attorneys who have criticized the SBI lab.

Jim Cooney, a Charlotte lawyer, said Friday's moves were a step in the right direction. But he repeated his call for an independent lab.

"The national search can find someone who can start putting together competent lab procedures," Cooney said. "But who is the lab director reporting to?"

SBI's hiring approach

Richardson came to the lab 23 years ago, hunting the stability of a government job. He'd studied communications at N.C. State University and had spent the next several years after graduation bouncing between jobs in retail, restaurants and disc jockeying.

Richardson is an emblem of the SBI laboratory that grew over the last several decades. Leaders hired people they liked with little regard for experience or educational background. SBI officials trained them to be cops and taught them the forensic science they thought they needed to know.

Richardson, an affable man who is quick with a word of praise, worked in the fingerprint analysis unit and trace evidence, identifying the origin of fibers and paints on evidence, before being promoted to lab chief in 2002.

In July, when presented with questions from The N&O, Richardson fumbled explanations of lab policies and procedures. When asked about a recent SBI lab administrative order detailing what materials are to be turned over to prosecutors in cases, Richardson couldn't explain what some of the documents were.

He tried unsuccessfully to explain away a judge's disqualification of an SBI firearm analyst as an expert. The day before, the analyst told the judge he had not completed one of the core elements of his training.

He called firearms analysis an "exact science," a contention flatly contradicted by the National Academy of Sciences.

As lab director, Richardson works at the pleasure of McLeod. But, as a state employee with more than 20 years' experience, he enjoys extra job protections, which may obligate leaders to find Richardson another job with the state.

Richardson's salary is $98,481 and he is little more than five years shy of being eligible to retire at full benefits.

No legal review

The performance of John Watters, legal counsel to the SBI since 1993, will also be scrutinized by McLeod.

Chris Swecker, the former FBI agent who led the audit of the serology unit, said that the policies in use in the unit since 1997 had never been subjected to a legal review. Before that, policies on how to report blood results didn't exist.

"That concerns me greatly, and I would expect there to be a review of all SBI operations, particularly regarding legal review," Cooper said.

Cooper said he expects McLeod to review Watters' performance and assemble a team of lawyers to vet all of the agency's policies. Already, some of those policies, such as the manual that guided analysts how to testify in court to enhance their conviction rate, have been suspended in the wake of The N&O investigation.

Cooper, too, had been sharply criticized by citizens in recent weeks.

As for his own performance, Cooper said he'd leave it to others to judge him while he gets back to the tough work ahead. Cooper was first elected attorney general in 2000 and would next come up for re-election in 2012.

"I'm going to continue to fight crime, protect consumers and do the job the people of North Carolina have asked me to do," he said.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer