Forensic Scientists - Under Prosecution's Thumb? (p. 1) - Sparrow Law Firm

Timing is everything. The Raleigh newspaper that brought the problems at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation crime lab to light recently criticized state officials for not promptly turning over documents requested under the public records law. One of the principal complaints about the SBI had been its close ties to law enforcement. The slow response of the attorney general’s office seemed to add fuel to that fire.

A little more than a week earlier, a newspaper 1,200 miles away printed a story about that state’s medical examiners and prosecutors’ objections to the state-employed pathologists testifying for the defense. Dismissed as chance?

As the Raleigh series of articles pointed out, the National Academy of Sciences found it troubling that many forensic scientists in the United States were operating under the supervision of or in partnership with law enforcement agencies. The academy’s report to Congress last year included recommendations that the government appropriate funds to sever the ties between public forensic labs and law enforcement.

The academy also recommended that state and local death investigation systems be replaced with regional medical examiner offices. The existing “hodgepodge” of state and local systems makes standardization a nightmare prospect.

The regional medical examiner model would have saved more than one of Minnesota’s medical examiners some anxiety. An assistant medical examiner, whose jurisdiction covers eight counties, claims that she was threatened after she testified for the defendant in a particularly gruesome murder case. She said prosecutors threatened to keep her from teaching at the state crime lab — she’d taught there for eight years — and told her they would file a complaint about her with the state disciplinary agency.

In our next post, we’ll discuss specific complaints in Minnesota and elsewhere. North Carolina is not alone in this.

Resource: ABA Journal “CSI Breakdown” 11/2010