State News

Judiciary panel OKs SBI crime lab changes

Posted February 9, 2011 12:19 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2011 7:09 p.m. EST

— Recommendations to improve operations at North Carolina's crime laboratory quickly cleared a House subcommittee on Wednesday, after the lab was the target of bad publicity and a blistering report last summer chronicling problems with past work by lab workers.

The House judiciary panel agreed unanimously on proposals from a group of lawmakers, law enforcement and judicial officials that met for months to discuss how to improve the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

The legislation, now likely to head next the full House for debate, would create a standing advisory panel to regularly review the lab's scientific work. It also would change the lab's formal purpose to make clear it doesn't work solely for the prosecution. It would make clear that it's a crime for someone to willfully withholding any lab tests from attorneys in a case. Withholding material could be grounds for a felony obstruction of justice charge.

"This isn't to say this is going to solve all of the issues," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, one of the bill's co-sponsors and leader of the commission assembled by the General Assembly that met last year to recommend changes. But he called it "very, very significant progress in terms of getting the lab back to where we all believe that everything that comes out of the lab in terms of its science is the best and credible science that there can be."

The commission's work accelerated after an outside review by former FBI officials uncovered more than 200 lab cases were improperly handled during a 16-year period ending in 2003 — often due to misrepresented blood work and keeping notes from defense attorneys. Attorney General Roy Cooper asked for the review after testimony by an SBI agent at the hearing of a man wrongly imprisoned nearly 17 years for a murder conviction. The man, Greg Taylor, was later exonerated and freed.

The bill would change the name of the State Bureau of Investigation Crime Laboratory to the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory and make clear lab personnel serve "the public and the criminal justice system," and not to "render a reasonable service to the prosecuting officers of the state."

"The job of the lab is to produce objective science wherever that leads, whether it favors the prosecution or it favors the defense," Glazier said.

Some committee members questioned whether the bill goes far enough.

"Changing the name ... I'm not sure that is all that's needed to be done," said Rep. David Guice, R-Transylvania. He said he remains concerned that some lab personnel remain as sworn SBI officers.

Greg McLeod, the bureau's new director, said some situations still require lab employees as agents, such as when the SBI is called to disassemble a meth lab. But "we're certainly moving away from the sworn status in the crime lab," McLeod said.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, who served on the subcommittee and the group that made the recommendations, said he'd prefer the Legislature have the SBI lab director report directly to Attorney General Roy Cooper, rather than to McLeod. He said it would give the lab more independence and reduce the perception that the lab works for prosecutors.

The group that made the recommendations narrowly rejected a similar proposal after local police feared it would weaken their ability to solve crimes. Michaux said he hoped the Senate would consider the leadership structure change, but he didn't want to delay the bill with an amendment.

McLeod, Cooper and interim SBI lab director Joseph John already have made changes to the lab over the past several months. Cooper had recommended the creation of a science advisory board. Other sections of the SBI lab are being audited, and the lab is seeking a second, higher accreditation from an outside group.