State News

Fixing SBI will cost money

Posted September 16, 2010 5:55 a.m. EDT
Updated September 16, 2010 5:53 p.m. EDT

— Restoring the credibility of the State Bureau of Investigation's crime laboratory after a blistering review of the lab's policies and procedures will cost the state, officials said Thursday.

An independent review found 190 cases that resulted in convictions from 1987 to 2003 in which SBI agents in the crime lab's blood-stain analysis unit omitted, overstated or falsely reported information about blood evidence.

Since the report was released last month, the crime lab director has been replaced, and Attorney General Roy Cooper has ordered audits of other parts of the lab. Defense attorneys say they will question the credibility of the SBI in court, and some lawmakers have said that they lab might need to be removed from SBI control.

"I was heartened by the actions that were taken, but it's also clear we have a long way to go," Rep. Rick Glazier, co-chairman of a special legislative committee looking into policy and procedure issues at the SBI, said Thursday.

The Joint Select Study Committee on the Preservation of Biological Evidence was formed last year to examine more technical evidence-preservation procedures. The committee, which also includes current and former district attorneys, court administrators and law enforcement authorities, heard Thursday from Cooper, new SBI Director Greg McLeod and Chris Swecker and Mike Wolf, the two former assistant FBI directors who conducted the independent review.

The committee expects to recommend changes in SBI operations to the General Assembly, which reconvenes in January. Glazier, D-Cumberland, said lawmakers should be prepared to spend money to carry out any needed reforms.

"The costs of not doing that are far greater than whatever those costs are going to be," he said.

McLeod said more training and more personnel will probably be needed to correct the deficiencies.

Cooper said it's too early to address the issue of an independent crime lab.

"I think that's an issue for tomorrow. That's an issue for the next legislative session. Today, I'm concentrating solely on fixing the problems," he said.

"We don't have all of the facts yet," he continued. "We haven't looked at all the other states and compared it to what North Carolina is doing. The key right now is for us to concentrate on the problems and get those problems fixed as quickly as possible and making sure the work that is done at the SBI is accurate and fair."

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers say, however, that making the crime lab independent could remove perceptions that lab workers are aiding prosecutors seeking evidence to build their cases. Twelve other states already have independent crime labs.

“There is a cloud hanging over the SBI, and the only way to remove that cloud is to remove the crime lab from the SBI,” Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight said in a statement this week.

"This is simply inexcusable," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said when the report was released in August. "We have to consider whether or not the SBI should remain under the Attorney General's Office or whether it should be an independent agency."

The special committee's co-chair, Sen. Ed Jones, said that quality control is his top concern. He suggested that another approach could be for other people in the SBI lab to double-check reports for accuracy.

“I’m open to any suggestions,” Jones, D-Bertie, said Monday. “I’m going in with an open mind to find out what happened and to keep it from happening again.”

House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, a committee member, said he wants more information before deciding on lab independence but said there has to be some working relationship between lab workers and law enforcement because their charge is to solve crimes with integrity.

“These are the practical problems,” Stam said. “We want the final work product of the SBI lab to be beyond reproach all the time.”