In an investigative series published this week, a Raleigh newspaper has detailed some disturbing practices at the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). The findings are no surprise to many North Carolina criminal defense attorneys or their clients. They have known for some time that the SBI crime lab is on the prosecutor’s team and, as such, isn’t quite the independent scientific body that taxpayers believe it is.
North Carolina is one of 38 states where the state forensics lab reports to police or prosecutors. The SBI is a division of the Department of Justice, which is run by the state’s most senior law enforcement officer, the attorney general. This reporting structure, experts say, puts the science squarely in the prosecutor’s camp when it should be in neutral territory. Or, as they say on television, the science should serve the truth, not the person.
The crime lab came into the spotlight last February when it was discovered that a lab serologist had withheld crucial evidence in a case — evidence that what prosecutors argued was blood on the defendant’s SUV wasn’t blood at all. The defendant was released from prison and exonerated.
Through reviews of lab policy and procedure manuals, interviews with state officials, and examination of questionable decisions, reporters confirm that the crime lab has
- Failed to conduct DNA tests or blood tests that could weaken the prosecution’s case
- Failed to turn over records to defense attorneys
- Forbidden defense experts to observe its work
All of these practices put defendants at a serious disadvantage, forcing defense attorneys to hire outside experts and independent labs to conduct tests that the crime lab is also conducting. Experts cost money — more often than not, they cost North Carolina taxpayers money. And taxpayers are already paying the $12.7 million a year it costs to run the SBI crime lab.
Worse, these practices and other evidence point to an outright hostility toward defendants and their attorneys. For example: In the past, the lab was discouraged from communicating with defense counsel before a trial. The guideline now is that analysts notify the prosecution before speaking with a defendant’s attorney, giving the prosecutor the option of attending the meeting or being present during the conversation.
SBI personnel counter that the dialogue between the lab’s analysts and the police helps to solve crimes.
Critics contend that the cozy relationship may solve crimes at the expense of serving justice.
Source: Raleigh News & Observer “Witness for the Prosecution: Lab Loyal to Law Enforcement” 8/12/10