A list of proposals to improve operations at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation debated by a joint legislative committee will move on to the General Assembly for approval. The proposals are expected to improve the image and credibility of the lab as well. The lab has been harshly criticized for its lack of scientific rigor and systemic bias against criminal defendants.
The specific proposals grew from recommendations made by independent auditors, the attorney general’s office, a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and the Joint Select Committee on the Preservation of Biological Evidence. The committee has held hearings about the SBI for a few months.
Most of the proposals focus on a necessary change in the agency’s culture, and many require law changes. For example, in response to evidence that crime lab personnel saw themselves as allies of law enforcement, the committee proposed changing statute to clarify that the lab works for the public and serves both sides of the criminal justice system. As one legislator put it, “The science is the science, and it should go where the facts lead.”
In keeping with the focus on the science, one proposal mandates that lab analysts undergo training, proficiency testing and certification in their fields of expertise. The committee also wants to remove the current accrediting agency for the lab, because that agency failed to detect serious problems with the lab’s procedures and policies. And the committee approved the creation of an independent North Carolina Forensic Science Advisory Board made up of members with specific expertise in DNA, chemistry and other forensic specialties.
Another proposal aims directly at the heart of the bias issue. The agency had been criticized for a lack of transparency as well as sloppy record-keeping. Staff members believing their objective was to convict the defendant would withhold lab notes or release test results only if they supported the prosecution. The committee asks that the law be changed to mandate disclosure of all notes, data and test results, adding criminal charges (obstruction of justice) for violations.
The proposal that fostered the most heated debate concerned the reporting structure within the SBI. The committee defeated the proposal to have the crime lab director report to the Attorney General instead of the SBI director.
Resource: News & Observer “Change at SBI Is a Step Closer” 01/19/11