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Crime lab should be independent of law enforcement

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While it’s unquestionably wrong — as a recent independent review pointed out — that analysts at the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab sometimes misrepresented blood evidence during criminal trials or withheld evidence critical to a crime defendant’s defense, no one really ought to be surprised that it happened. If there is a real shocker in the recent damaging investigation of the SBI crime lab, it’s that such inappropriate behavior didn’t happen more often.

We say that in light of revelations that suggest that the SBI crime lab, while ostensibly set up to facilitate the pursuit of justice, seems to have operated more like another arm of law enforcement. For example, a lab training manual — whose use was suspended in August — advised SBI analysts to give prosecutors a heads-up about any weaknesses in their cases. What’s more, state laws appear to give SBI analysts’ cosiness with law enforcement an official stamp of approval, telling them to “render a reasonable service to the prosecuting officers (DAs) of the State in the discharge of their duties” and advising them to examine evidence “leading to the identification, apprehension or conviction of criminals.”

The appropriateness of those laws is just one of the items that will need scrutiny as state lawmakers and the N.C. Department of Justice seek a proper response to a recent independent review of the serology unit of the crime lab. The review, sought by Attorney General Roy Cooper and conducted by two former FBI agents, concluded that between 1987 to 2003, analysts in that section of the SBI crime lab sometimes helped prosecutors obtain convictions, most commonly by misrepresenting blood evidence or keeping critical information from defense attorneys. In a report on their review, the two FBI agents said district attorneys across the state needed to reexamine 190 cases in which the handling of blood evidence by the crime lab was questionable, including three cases that resulted in executions.

Recently, local District Attorney Frank Parrish acknowledged that five of the 190 cases flagged in the report were prosecuted by his office. Although four of the cases resulted in guilty pleas and the fifth ended with a guilty verdict, Parrish appropriately plans to review the cases — three of which involved murder or manslaughter charges — to ensure the lab evidence presented to his office wasn’t tainted.

Cautioning against overreaction, Parrish noted that statewide, the potential error rate in blood evidence cases was small. Of the more than 15,000 cases examined during the independent review, only 190 — about 1.49 percent — were recommended for reexamination.

Parrish’s concerns about overreaction are legitimate. Already, defense attorneys are signalling that, in the wake of the crime lab investigation, they plan to start questioning SBI technicians’ credibility and independence. Such questions are fair game, especially as they relate to how the analysts were trained and the culture they operate under at the crime lab.

It’s hard to predict how juries will respond to the revelations. We’d like to assume that jurors already give appropriate weight to all evidence presented in court, including that by SBI analysts. But it’s hard to see how the revelations about how some SBI agents handled blood evidence can’t help but raise skepticism about the reliability of that evidence in jurors’ minds. That can’t be a positive development. While some skepticism is healthy, trials that end in not-guilty verdicts simply because jurors couldn’t trust the testimony of an SBI witness will pervert the cause of justice, not further it.

To counteract that skepticism and ensure defendants get fair trials, some attorneys and lawmakers, including state Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, have already called for setting up a crime laboratory that’s independent of the SBI. Local criminal defense attorney Mike Sanders recently told The Daily Advance that he believes the separation would “be to everyone’s benefit because it would remove that cloud of suspicion” now hanging over the lab’s work.

Cooper and others in law enforcement have cautioned decision-makers to go slow on the idea, pointing out that many other states don’t have crime labs separate from law enforcement and that setting up an independent lab in North Carolina could be costly. Cooper believes the state’s first priority should be on investigating and fixing problems it has and may have at the lab. After then, he says, officials can determine where the crime lab should go.

That sounds like a reasonable approach to us. But given that the main interest here is justice, not control or costs, we think the crime lab ultimately will have to be removed from SBI oversight. We also think state laws will need to be revised to ensure that there’s no confusion in the future that the crime lab’s principal tasks are the scientific study of crime evidence and the presentation of those facts, not assistance in prosecutions.

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SBI Crime Lab

Having kept up with other reports on this matter, if I were called to jury duty today and the SBI crime lab presented evidence in the case I would struggle with whether or not to trust their testimony. In my mind this agency is now facing a very serious credibility issue. It shook me to the core when I read that it was discovered that the one agency I thought was independent, and an agency whose testimony I would have trusted - can't be trusted.

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