Crime lab analysts and agents with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) have been accused of pushing the limits of accepted science and police procedures to provide pro-prosecution results. The accusations appeared well-founded after an audit ordered by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper found that 229 criminal prosecutions had been tainted because SBI analysts reported the results of initial blood tests while withholding the outcomes of more sophisticated confirmation blood tests in reports sent to prosecutors.
The accrediting agency for the SBI’s crime lab, which should have discovered the problems, has been criticized for being too closely associated with a crime lab trade group and a for-profit accreditation consulting agency. [See: PLN, Oct. 2010, p.1]. Adding to the controversy, a recently-retired SBI agent has accused the SBI of blaming him for withholding exculpatory information in a twelve-year-old murder case, while another agent is contesting his termination for misrepresenting blood test evidence.
ASCLD-LAB, the nation’s largest forensic crime lab accreditation association, is located in a strip mall in Johnston County, North Carolina. The ASCLD trade association of forensic crime labs and ASCLD Consulting, a for-profit consulting company that instructs labs on how to achieve accreditation, have the same physical address. However, the trade association and consulting firm use nonexistent suite mailing addresses that give the appearance of having separate facilities while their mail is delivered to the same location as the accreditation agency. The same person answers all three organizations’ phones. Questions have been raised regarding the propriety of the three organizations being in such incestuous proximity.
“I think it’s questionable that they have these organizations that claim to be separate running out of what appears to be the same office,” said Washington, D.C. forensic scientist Amy Driver. Driver, originally from Raleigh, said she couldn’t understand who is profiting from the accreditation process and who is actually behind the groups.
ASCLD officials claim that while appearing unusual to outsiders, the sharing of administrative resources and building space is a matter of convenience, not collusion. Joseph Bono, the consulting group’s contract manager, maintained that the for-profit agency was independent of the ASCLD-LAB accreditation organization.
“The implication that the two are in any way affiliated in any other way than to better forensic science ... I don’t agree with that implication,” Bono said. “That’s where the mail goes. That’s it. There’s no connection.”
North Carolina Secretary of State spokesman George Jeter said companies are not allowed to use fictitious addresses.
“That’s the purpose of a registered agent: Someone has to be the person on the hook,” said Jeter. “If it’s not a real address, that has to be changed.”
ASCLD trade association president and part-time executive director Greg Matheson recently had the association’s mail re-routed to his Michigan address, and acknowledged that sharing facilities presented an image problem. “It’s not a good thing from a perception standpoint,” he said.
But it’s not just perception that poses a problem for ASCLD-LAB. The organization wrote the standards and protocols used to accredit the SBI lab beginning in 1988. Yet ASCLD-LAB missed the many problems later found with the crime lab’s blood unit.
Further, two of ASCLD-LAB’s officials are retired SBI managers who were working for the lab when the problems occurred. This calls into question their ability to accredit forensic labs, and led some North Carolina lawmakers to ask the SBI to find another accrediting agency.
The waters were further muddied when, in 2007, the ASCLD trade association created ASCLD Consulting, a for-profit company, to teach lab officials how to meet the standards and protocols created by ASCLD-LAB. Recently, ASCLD-LAB began accrediting crime labs under revised standards promulgated by an international science organization in 2005. The SBI lab is pursuing an accelerated schedule for achieving accreditation under those standards, but has not decided whether it will hire consultants to assist in that effort.
Meanwhile, a former SBI assistant special agent in charge has accused the SBI of scapegoating him in a botched high-profile murder case.
Dwight Ransome, a 28-year veteran of the SBI, said he remained silent for five years until he could retire but now wants to come clean regarding a scandal that revolved around the Alan Gell case. Gell was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but his conviction was reversed and he was subsequently acquitted after revelations that the SBI had failed to disclose the existence of 17 witnesses who saw the victim alive after the date that the medical examiner determined the murder had occurred. Gell later received around $4 million in settlements related to his wrongful conviction. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.32; Nov. 2005, p.8].
Ransome acknowledged that as the agent in charge of the Gell murder investigation, he was responsible for the incomplete files that were turned over to the prosecutor. However, he claimed he discussed the existence of the witnesses with the prosecution, which the district attorney’s office has denied.
Ransome alleges that despite his lengthy career with the SBI that was otherwise spotless, he was blamed for all of the problems in the Gell case when, in fact, the blame should be divided among him, the SBI lab and the medical examiner.
“This is bigger than Alan Gell; this is bigger than Dwight Ransome ... this is about right and wrong,” Ransome stated.
Another former SBI agent, Duane Deaver, is trying to get his job back after being fired in January 2011 following an investigation into problems at the crime lab. Deaver filed an appeal with the Office of Administrative Hearings, alleging that the SBI “unlawfully ignored” a recommendation by the state Department of Justice to reinstate him.
Deaver was reportedly fired for three reasons, one of which involved his testimony before the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission when it heard the case of Greg Taylor, who was exonerated in February 2010 after serving almost 17 years on a murder conviction. Deaver was accused of being misleading about a blood test conducted in the Taylor case. The victim’s blood was allegedly found on Taylor’s SUV; however, it was later determined there was no blood.
When testifying before the Innocence Inquiry Commission, Deaver said the SBI would release initial test reports to prosecutors indicating the presence of blood; however, if further testing was negative, that information was not provided in the reports sent to prosecutors. It was later verified that that was in fact the crime lab’s policy. Four of the eight analysts who followed such improper blood testing practices at the lab still work for the SBI, while another performs contract work.
An August 2010 audit of the SBI by two former FBI agents, Chris Swecker and Mike Wolf, found that “information that was material or even favorable to the defense was withheld and misrepresented” in 229 cases. A review of 190 of those cases was recommended, including cases in which four of the defendants remain on death row, three have already been executed, and five died while incarcerated.
“This report is troubling,” said Attorney General Roy Cooper. “It describes a practice that should have been unacceptable then and is not acceptable now.”
“This is such a damning indictment on the SBI,” added Staples Hughes, North Carolina’s appellate defender. “Why didn’t they just say ‘we lied.’ That’s what they did. Sadly, I’m not surprised.”
In March 2011, it was reported that the SBI had found 75 additional cases involving mishandled blood evidence, prompting reviews by prosecutors. At that time, district attorneys had already examined 147 of the initial cases identified in the investigatory audit, and found all of those convictions were proper based on other evidence such as confessions, ballistics and eyewitness testimony.
Previously, in December 2010, Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson released Derrick Allen from prison; Allen had been convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter. Judge Hudson entered an order on March 10, 2011 that said prosecutors concealed evidence and the SBI omitted blood test results in Allen’s case.
Legislation has been introduced that would create a scientific panel to review procedures at the SBI lab, require certification of forensic science staff, create an ombudsman position to “ensure that the best forensic processes and procedures are utilized in the state crime laboratory,” and clarify the state’s obligation to disclose all evidence reports and results to defendants. The bill would also make it a criminal offense for SBI employees to knowingly fail to provide all evidence and test results to the defense. The legislation (S40/H27) passed in the House and is pending in the state Senate.
Meanwhile, North Carolina prosecutors are supporting another bill that would make it more difficult for prisoners to assert claims of innocence. The legislation, H778, would bar innocence claims by defendants who pleaded guilty; it would also prohibit anyone except the defendant or the trial court from referring cases of possible innocence to the Innocence Inquiry Commission, and would raise the standard for a finding of innocence. Further, if prosecutorial misconduct is suspected, the Conference of District Attorneys, rather than the state bar association, would hear such cases.
H778 was referred to a House judiciary subcommittee on April 7, 2011, where it remains pending. Should it pass, the bill would only serve to compound the miscarriage of justice that has resulted from systemic misconduct and malfeasance by the state’s crime lab.
Sources: Raleigh News & Observer, Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, www.wwaytv3.com, www.dailyjournal.net, http://abcnews.go.com, Associated Press, www.starnewsonline.com
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