North Carolina SBI Lab Under Review: What Does It Mean for Prisoners?

According to The News & Observer, Greg Taylor was imprisoned for 17 years, after prosecutors repeatedly told jurors in Taylor's 1993 trial that his truck was stained with blood. Duane Deaver, a veteran State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) agent, reported to prosecutors in 1991 that a substance found on the truck showed indications of being blood. Additional testing proved that was not the case but Deaver failed to disclose the further testing and negative results. The flawed police investigation and trial, and mounting concerns about the lab's integrity, prompted Attorney General Roy Cooper to order an external review of the North Carolina crime lab early in 2010.

SBI Lab Review Ordered

According to sources, Cooper originally ordered an internal review of the lab. However, after a team of criminal defense lawyers made a call for an external review, Cooper hired two former FBI agents. Mike Wolf, a former FBI agent in Connecticut, and Chris Swecker, a lawyer and former agent in charge of North Carolina, have been reviewing cases and practices of the SBI lab from the early 1990s to the present. The internal investigation has continued as well.

Swecker said the review would be exhaustive. The state has already extended Wolf and Swecker's original 90-day contracts, which were set to expire in June 2010 and compensate each up to $40,000 each. The extensions run through the end of the year and pay each up to $100,000.

Lab Culture

Some argue the lab culture encouraged questionable acts. Deaver testified that supervisors instructed him to handle reports as he did. SBI Director Robin Pendergraft said it was lab practice to report results of the most advanced test that yielded positive results for blood. She defended Deaver's work despite the fact that in Taylor's case, that was a preliminary test that reacts positively not only for blood but for other substances and matter as well.

Review Results

Since Taylor's exoneration, attorneys have been taking second looks at old cases, and some have already advised Cooper of other alleged problems with SBI lab work. Jim Woodall, district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties, has called upon other district attorneys to inspect old cases that relied on blood evidence. Inmates have written to North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, with questions and concerns over potentially faulty lab work used in their convictions.

The lab has conducted forensic analysis on major crimes for decades and the review will require thousands of cases to be re-examined. The results will be released to the public.

Due Process Concerns

The results of the review may give rise to many due process concerns regarding:

  • How DNA and drug samples were procured
  • Whether the results of DNA tests administered in the time under review should be kept in law enforcement databases
  • Whether those convicted have rights to new DNA tests

The review may reveal that Deaver was not alone in his failure to disclose a relevant test result. Additional occurrences, acts of cross-contamination or failures in the chain of custody, could raise significant due process questions with regard to prior convictions. Depending on the facts of any specific case, some may be able to have their cases retried or their convictions overturned based on defects in the pre-conviction testing or sampling.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Supreme Court of the United States has already said in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, that upon conviction defendants are not entitled to DNA testing that might prove their innocence. In writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the powerfulness of DNA testing but stated that the criminal justice system is better left to regulate procedures based on technological changes. That case did not involve allegations that lab work was faulty.

In addition, one disabled man has sued SBI agents alleging due process violations in relation to his murder arrest. The News & Observer reports that Floyd Brown, a Wadesboro man with an IQ of 50 and the mental capabilities of a 7-year-old child, confessed to a murder, making reference to directions and details his attorneys argue Brown could not understand. None of the evidence tested at the SBI lab linked Brown to the crime scene and the Anson sheriff's department lost virtually all of the physical evidence. Nonetheless, Brown was held at the Dorothea Dix Hospital for 14 years because doctors said he was not mentally competent to stand trial and local prosecutors argued he was too dangerous to return to the community. In 2007, a superior court judge ordered Brown released.

Patrick Roberts of Roberts Law Group PLLC provides North Carolina residents with skilled criminal defense representation including arraignment, bail, pre-trial negotiations, trial, probation violations and criminal expungements.

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