Local News

Acting Crime Lab director sees progress, but some say it's slow

Posted August 19, 2011 6:42 p.m. EDT
Updated August 19, 2011 7:31 p.m. EDT

— The acting director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's crime laboratory says he is pleased with the lab's efforts to improve since a scathing report a year ago that called into question hundreds of criminal cases prosecuted over a 16-year period.

"It's moving in the right direction," former Judge Joe John said Friday.

The independent report last August found that SBI analysts in the lab's serology unit misrepresented or left out blood evidence in about 200 criminal cases from 1987 to 2003. A subsequent review under John found an additional 74 cases that are in the process of being re-evaluated.

In the weeks that followed the August report, Attorney General Roy Cooper reassigned the SBI director and named a new one, and removed the former Crime Lab director. Duane Deaver, a blood spatter analyst linked to some of the most egregious violations in the report, was fired, and three others were placed on administrative duty.

Cooper appointed John in October to serve as the Crime Lab's interim director and to oversee a review of all aspects of the lab.

John says the lab is now more transparent and that the leadership continues to work to update its standards and procedures.

Since October, the Crime Lab has appointed an ombudsman to serve as a liaison to the criminal justice system and the public. Two independent DNA audits have affirmed that the SBI's DNA lab meets high national standards, and the lab has also posted its policies and procedures online.

"It would have been nice if we could have done it more quickly," John said. "We've also got a laboratory to run. We've also had a review of the existing procedures."

John says he expects to roll out new standards and procedures within the next 60 days.

"It's an extraordinarily painstaking, careful, detailed approach to these new procedures," John said. "We have a manual for every section in the laboratory. Every procedure done in the lab must be set out in the manual, or we can't do it."

I. Beverly Lake, the former state chief justice who founded the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, however, says the pace of the progress disappoints him.

"It seems to me that the whole process has been inordinately slow," Lake said. "I think they made progress, but they should have made much more by this time."

It was the work of the Innocence Commission that ultimately led to the Crime Lab review.

Concerns about its reporting practices surfaced in February 2010 when a three-judge panel exonerated Gregory Taylor after Deaver testified that blood test results that could have helped Taylor during his 1993 trial were never turned over to defense attorneys.

Lake says he has advice and suggestions that could help.

"They've fallen well short of what should have been accomplished by now," Lake said. "I think I could give them some specific recommendations, but I'll hold off on that until I'm asked."

The SBI Crime Lab still has more work to do and issues to deal with.

It's still searching for a permanent lab director, and the three agents – Suzi Barker, Jennifer Elwell and Russell Holley – placed on administrative duty are still waiting on an internal investigation to determine whether they will go back to the lab.

"That inquiry is with the SBI Professional Standards Unit, and I don't have any role in that, and frankly, I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment," John said.

Deaver is also appealing his termination. Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge ordered mediation between Deaver and the SBI.

John says he remains focused every day on the accuracy of the approximately 43,000 cases a year the Crime Lab handles and the accountability of analysts.

"They are extraordinarily talented individuals who are absolutely committed to doing their work in a fair, ethical and responsible manner," he said. "They don't have any axes to grind."