Dispatches from the Creation Wars

More Police Lab Corruption

Balko has a disturbing article about a crime lab in North Carolina where corruption may have sent innocent men to their death.

Greg Taylor served 16 years in prison after he was falsely convicted of murdering a prostitute in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was released in February by a special three-judge panel after it was discovered the blood police claimed to have found in his SUV wasn’t blood at all. In the wake of that debacle, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered two retired FBI agents to conduct an investigation on the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime lab. The report came out last week, and it is damning.

The report found that SBI agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period. Three of those cases resulted in execution. There was widespread lying, corruption, and pressure from prosecutors and other law enforcement officials on crime lab analysts to produce results that would help secure convictions. And the pressure worked.

This is the most disturbing part:

A stunning accompanying investigation by the Raleigh News & Observer found that though the crime lab’s results were presented to juries with the authoritativeness of science, laboratory procedures were geared toward just one outcome: putting as many people in prison as possible. The paper discovered an astonishingly frank 2007 training manual for analysts, still in use as of last week, instructing researchers that “A good reputation and calm demeanor also enhances an analyst’s conviction rate.” Defense attorneys, the manual warned, often “put words into the analyst’s mouth to try and raise inaccuracies.” The guide also instructs analysts to beware of “defense whores”–analysts hired by defense attorneys to challenge their testimony.

This focus on conviction rate by anyone but prosecutors is incredibly destructive. I’ve actually seen judges running for reelection on the grounds of their conviction rate. But the job of a judge is not to convict, it is to see that justice is done — and in many cases, justice means acquittal.

The same is true of a crime lab. Their job is not to convict people, it is to do good science and get accurate results. Whether those results help convict someone or help acquit them has nothing at all to do with the quality of their work.

Even for prosecutors to focus so much on conviction rate is problematic, but at least with them a high conviction rate can — even if it often doesn’t — indicate a careful prosecutor who doesn’t bring charges without a strong case grounded in the evidence. But for judges and crime labs, a focus on conviction rates is a primary cause of injustice.

The relationships between SBI crime lab researchers and North Carolina prosecutors aren’t just cozy, they’re downright cuddly. The News & Observer reports that in one case two blood-spatter specialists ran through multiple experiments in order to produce even one that would make the blood patterns on a defendant’s shorts support the prosecution’s case. The two analysts are seen on video high-fiving after finally producing the desired result.

For those clinging to the notion that analysis in a law enforcement-managed laboratory can be independent, the newspaper uncovered prosecutor reviews of crime lab analysts indicating the contrary. In 2003, for example, prosecutor Ann Kirby, wrote in a review of a drug analyst, “If Lisa Edwards gets any better on the witness stand, the Johnston County defense bar is going to try and have her banned from the county!”

These weren’t a few rogue analysts; the crime lab’s problems extend across a wide array of forensic disciplines. Until 1997, the lab’s serology unit didn’t release negative test results as a matter of policy. If tests showed that a substance that police claimed was blood wasn’t in fact blood, analysts simply kept those results to themselves.

Greg Taylor was wrongly convicted precisely because of this policy. A substance that police falsely identified as blood was found in Taylor’s truck. But the field tests that police use to find blood at a crime scene have a high margin for error. More sophisticated lab tests showed that the substance wasn’t blood, but a SBI analyst testified at Taylor’s innocence hearing that technicians were told to ignore these tests if they contradicted the field-test results.

In another case, an attorney for a woman accused of killing her mother was shocked to learn that the lab’s DNA tests on blood found at the crime scene matched his client. He called the lab and asked them to retest. They refused. He was finally able to obtain a court order for a new test. It was negative. It turned out that a lab technician had swapped the sample provided by his client with blood taken from the crime scene.

This pattern has played itself out all over the country, in state after state. We need a fundamental restructuring of our criminal justice system, from top to bottom.