State News

SBI review revives death penalty concerns

Posted August 19, 2010 6:17 p.m. EDT
Updated August 19, 2010 7:07 p.m. EDT

— A report Wednesday into practices at the State Bureau of Investigation's crime lab has renewed calls by some to put the death penalty on hold in North Carolina, pending a detailed look at the entire agency.

"At the very least, what we should do is not execute any person as long as there's questions to much of the validity of the evidence that comes out of the SBI crime lab," said Jeremy Collins, executive director for the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium.

The government-ordered outside review by two former FBI officials found that SBI analysts omitted, overstated or falsely reported blood evidence in 230 cases from 1987 to 2003 – 190 of which led to convictions, including three that ended in executions.

Five others were also capital cases, including that of Patricia Wells Jennings, who was convicted in 1990 of beating and torturing her 80-year-old husband to death in Wilson.

Jennings' attorney, Gretchen Engel, with the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said prosecutors relied heavily on an SBI agents who testified blood was spattered all over the room when it wasn't.

"It's very troubling," she said.

Like the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation believes executions should be halted until a comprehensive review of the entire SBI can occur.

North Carolina has been under a de facto moratorium since 2007 because of disputes over doctors' roles in executions and prisoners' concerns on how they are carried out.

Calling the review "devastating revelations of deliberate wrongdoing," the state chapter of the NAACP said Thursday it wants the death penalty repealed.

The group is holding a news conference at 10 a.m. Monday on the matter and how it believes current death row sentences should be handled.

"We believe the agencies involved have forfeited the trust and faith, which people should have in them. The conclusion is inescapable," state NAACP President Rev. William Barber said in a news release. "Every resident of North Carolina has been hurt by these malicious abuses of authority, and we all remain potential victims."

Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered that each of the cases identified in Wednesday's report be re-examined by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Beaufort County District Attorney Seth Edwards, who is also the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said in a news release Thursday, "we will endeavor to review all 190 cases to make sure justice has been served."

"Contrary to popular belief, prosecutors seek the truth, not convictions," he said. "While defense lawyers play an important role in our system, they do not have a similar charge."

The far-reaching effects of Wednesday's report – including what will happen with other cases in which the SBI has been involved and the future of the agency – are unclear.

Duane Deaver, a longtime SBI agent whose testimony during an innocence hearing this year was the catalyst for the outside review, was recently placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an internal SBI investigation.

He was associated with what were deemed to be the five "most egregious" cases identified in the review, and his methods and practices have been criticized by defense attorneys for years, most notably in the 2003 murder trial of Mike Peterson, a Durham novelist serving a life sentence for killing his wife.

Peterson said Thursday that he is hopeful he will be granted a retrial because of Deaver's role in the case.

Jim Woodall, district attorney in Orange and Chatham counties, said he also has concerns about the SBI's credibility on current cases.

"I think it's going to raise doubts," he said. "I don't think there's any question."

Defense attorney Karl Knudsen, who said he was "terribly frightened" by the independent review, said the SBI's image has been damaged.

"It's almost like they were cloaked in an aura of infallibility, and the jurors and judges were primed to believe everything because they were the SBI," he said. "That's gone."

Knudsen said he believes the SBI will recover only after its crime lab has independent oversight "and is no longer regarded as a tool for conviction but as a resource to ascertain the truth."

Other legal experts, like James Coleman, a law professor at Duke University, agree.

"I think the justice system took a big hit in this review, and I think the trust the public had in this agency has been destroyed," he said.

A long-time critic of the agency, Coleman said he is not surprised by the report's findings. He said that the SBI's lack of transparency about research and methods and the findings suggesting that they mislead with evidence is inexcusable for an agency that is supposed to be grounded in science.

While testing methods changed significantly after 2003, Coleman said the lab's credibility is damaged beyond repair.

"It's not just a question of what they did, it's a question of the culture of the agency, and I think the culture hasn't changed," he said.

Woodall, a longtime opponent to an independent lab, said he is now open to the idea.

"I think there are some big issues with that, but I think it's something that has to be on the table," he said.