State News

SBI to conduct nationwide search for lab director

Posted August 20, 2010 3:34 p.m. EDT
Updated August 20, 2010 7:11 p.m. EDT

— The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation will launch a national search for a new crime lab director, the state Department of Justice said Friday.

The announcement comes two days after an outside report into the lab's serology program, which found analysts omitted, overstated or falsely reported information about blood evidence in nearly 200 cases that led to convictions in a 17-year period.

SBI director Greg McLeod will convene a panel of law enforcement officials, defense attorneys and prosecutors to replace Jerry Richardson.

"What I have decided is to further strengthen the management team at the SBI,” McLeod told The Associated Press. “To move forward at the SBI crime lab, we need someone with significant scientific experience that is willing to come in and take a fresh look at things and ask lots of questions, be open to criticism and run a more transparent operation.”

Richardson has been removed from his position and did not return a call seeking comment. He has held the job since 2002 and has served with the SBI since 1987.

McLeod has also moved to remove agents identified in the outside review who are currently working on cases in the lab, the justice department said.

Defense attorneys and justice groups have called for the crime lab to be independent from the SBI. Some argue that the lab seeks to build cases to support law enforcement's theories rather than the truth.

"We didn't see any evidence of current analyst lack of objectivity," Chris Swecker, a former assistant FBI director who helped conduct the outside SBI review, said Wednesday.

Friday's announcement is the second in recent weeks involving leadership within the SBI.

Last month, longtime director Robin Pendergraft stepped down to take a new role in the Medicaid Investigative Unit of the Attorney General's Office.

Saying the recent scrutiny had nothing to do with her job change, Attorney General Roy Cooper named McLeod, his legislative counsel, to head the SBI.

Some critics, however, believe there should have been a broader search for McLeod's post – someone from outside the justice department who can overhaul the bureau.

"I find it puzzling that the attorney general's lobbyist has been named as the head of the SBI," said former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who is also the executive director of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.

"I just think the whole credibility of the criminal justice system has been shaken to its foundation by those revelations," he said.

McLeod worked in the Attorney General's Office for eight years and served before then as general counsel to the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

"I've worked with all the partners in the criminal justice system. I'm familiar with them, and I know what their issues and concerns are. I come with an open mind and questioning attitude," he said in an interview Wednesday. "That's what will best serve the SBI right now."

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Friday that he has found McLeod to be a quick learner, conscientious and "a straight arrow."

"Those qualities would serve any director of the SBI well," Willoughby said. "Before anyone is critical of his term, I think we should give him an opportunity to do his job and judge him on his performance."