State News

SBI alters drug analysis policy after ruling

Posted August 18, 2010 5:24 a.m. EDT
Updated August 18, 2010 12:55 p.m. EDT

— The State Bureau of Investigation has changed its procedures for identifying drug evidence after North Carolina’s Supreme Court balked at the practice of sometimes using visual inspections instead of testing.

Ann Hamlin, the special agent in charge of the drug chemistry section of the SBI lab, said in an e-mail released by the agency this week that it will do chemical analysis on both felony and misdemeanor cases. An SBI chemist had previously testified that the lab would sometimes analyze the physical characteristics of tablets to determine the drug.

The state Supreme Court, in a June ruling, said the visual inspection process was not sufficiently reliable.

“Ultimately, the State is better served by identifying perpetrators with reliable evidence and reducing the likelihood that convictions rest on inaccurate data,” justices wrote.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper did not immediately know how many cases were affected by the decision.

Special Agent Irvin Lee Allcox, a chemist at the SBI lab, testified as part of the case that he had worked for 34 years with the agency, most of that time as a chemist in the crime lab. He believed that counterfeit tablets could be identified because genuine tablets have certain colors, shapes and markings.

Allcox testified that the lab has limited resources and is unable to do chemical testing on all the drugs. The lab would focus chemical testing on cases that would support felony charges and visual testing on apparent misdemeanor ones, according to a Supreme Court review of the case.

The Supreme Court case, brought on appeal after the conviction of Jimmy Waylon Ward, was a felony case. Still, the lab identified some of the case’s drugs by visual inspection. The high court sent the case back to lower courts for additional proceedings.

The SBI and its crime lab have been under fire since February, when an SBI agent testified at an innocence hearing about a policy to not include all information on blood tests in lab reports provided to courts.

Earlier this year, Cooper asked two former assistant directors of the FBI to review the lab, and he has planned a news conference for Wednesday afternoon to discuss the review. 

Cooper recently asked new State Bureau of Investigation director Greg McLeod to review the firearms identification unit.