The investigative report in a Raleigh newspaper last week caught the attention of criminal defense attorneys across North Carolina. The series highlighted some critical shortcomings — and sparked some changes — at the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime lab.
Fans of the television show “NCIS” know that crack forensic scientist Abby Sciuto has credentials as impressive as her tattoos. She bases her conclusions on precise science and demonstrates, week after week, a total dedication to the truth. Her ethics are seldom questioned.
Alas, SBI analysts often fall short of the Abby Ideal. One example in the report involved the conduct of a ballistics analysis in a case where the gun or guns involved had disappeared. The analyst had only bullets to examine under her microscope, with no photographs to back up her conclusions.
She testified with absolute certainty that the bullets found near the victim were shot from the same gun that had left casings at the defendant’s feet. That testimony eliminated the defendant’s contention that there was a second shooter. The defendant was convicted.
Firearms and toolmark identification is controversial to begin with, and most experts agree that an analysts’ conclusions should be buttressed by photographs showing how the lands and grooves on the bullets match. In this case, though, no photographs were taken. And, subsequent examinations by outside experts found that the bullets are starkly different.
The result raises doubts about the education, training, and ethics of the analyst as well as her colleagues in the lab.
First, national experts say that firearms analysis is more art than science: With no statistical foundation to back up their conclusions, analysts must rely on their subjective evaluations. But so must the legal system, and, in some jurisdictions, judges are less and less tolerant of analysts’ testimony based on “absolute certainty.”
The SBI itself refers to firearms analysis as ambiguous. But the head of the crime lab has a different opinion. It is, he said, based on “sound research” and is “pretty much an exact science.” This may be why SBI analysts routinely state with confidence that bullets match guns that are missing or that have been fished from rivers.
Second, the agency takes a fairly casual approach to hiring and training . A degree in science, for example, is not a requirement. One analyst testified that his training — training that was supposed to qualify him as an expert witness — had consisted entirely of studying a manual, on his own, over two years. Continuing education and membership in professional organizations are not required of lab staff, either.
As for the ethics question — it may be that the lab’s close ties to law enforcement prompt analysts to overstate their confidence in their conclusions. Such overstatement may just rise to the level of perjury.
The report has certainly stirred the pot, and the SBI is feeling the heat. If state officials heed the recommendations of outside experts, defendants in criminal cases may be able turn to real-life Abbys for forensics that will prove their innocence.
Source: Raleigh News & Observer “SBI Relies on Bullet Analysis That Critics Deride as Unreliable” 8/14/10