WRAL Investigates

Drug-testing kit is source of appeals

Posted October 4, 2010 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 4, 2010 8:14 p.m. EDT

WRAL Investigates

— The State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab remains under fire after an independent audit questioned evidence analyzed by agents. Now, defense attorneys are going after evidence analysis linked to a private company in the Triangle.

Morrisville-based NarTest sells drug-testing equipment to state law enforcement. The company's device uses multiple sources of fluorescent light to identify cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine.

"You don't have to be a chemist to do this. You don't have to be a forensic scientist,” said Trot Raney, a forensic chemist with NarTest and a retired SBI agent.

With less than a dozen clients so far, including the Harnett County Sheriff's Department, NarTest sells its testing equipment and trains law enforcement to identify illegal drugs without going to outside labs.

“They don't have to send them out. They don't have to wait. They can know the day of the arrest what they have,” NarTest manager Kimberly Fink said.

What they have, however, remains the big question.

A cocaine possession conviction in Onslow County sent John Kennedy Meadows to prison as a habitual felon for a minimum of 10 years. When the state Court of Appeals questioned the accuracy of Nartest's machine, he was able to win a new trial.

“There's a real risk here that someone could get convicted on unreliable evidence,” Fayetteville defense attorney Paul Herzog said.

Herzog represents Larry Dean Smith, one of at least five other drug defendants to get new trials because of disputed drug testing.

“He was convicted by using a technology that's not been proved to be scientifically reliable at this time. So, he deserves a new trial,” Herzog said.

Because of appellate court decisions and uncertainty about the science, most lower courts won't admit NarTest identified narcotics. The company compares the dispute to Breathalyzers that were questioned for years, yet are now regularly admitted in drunken driving cases.

To fight the stigma, NarTest often runs back-up tests using more traditional technology. The company wants to train prosecutors better to explain the drug testing in court.

Fink says she wants the science explored in court “so that if the case does get appealed, we can actually get a ruling on the science.”

Until Nartest can be proven by independent testing, attorneys representing drug defendants will continue to be skeptical.

“We don't know whether this is real science or not," Herzog said.