North Carolina's Corrupted Crime Lab

A damning state report finds systematic abuse, including in death penalty cases.

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.

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.

Forensic science in America is corrupted by a fundamental conflict of interest. In far too many states, crime labs fall under the auspices of law enforcement, usually reporting to the state attorney general. A forensic analyst's real aim should be to follow the science, even if results prove disappointing to bosses who are trying to secure convictions. But the pressure from prosecutors, even when it’s not overt (which it often is), produces bias even in the work of the most fair-minded analysts.

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.

The SBI crime lab scandal is only the most recent story of forensics malfeasance. In recent years there have been forensics scandals in Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, Michigan, Texas, and at the FBI. And this is only a partial list. At some point, it becomes sensible to conclude that these scandals aren't the result of isolated bad actors, but of a system that produces them.

Last year the National Academy of Sciences released a scathing report on the use of forensics in the courtroom, finding systemic problems ranging from analysts routinely overstating the implications of their test results, to the widespread use of forensic specialties like bite-mark analysis that have little basis in science at all.

Most forensic disciplines were invented by police investigators, not scientists. Courts have allowed these disciplines to be admitted into evidence before they've been subjected to any serious scrutiny from the scientific community. The methods used in most crime labs disregard critical scientific principles such as blind testing, competency testing, peer review, and statistical analysis. Yet when a forensic specialist testifies in the courtroom, his testimony usually carries the weight and veneer of actual science. (See here for some suggested reforms.)

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is a good illustration of the political hurdles standing in the way of fixing any of these problems. Cooper deserves praise for ordering such a comprehensive investigation. It takes guts for a politican to risk being labeled “soft on crime,” especially a politician who is a current or former prosecutor.

Still, Cooper was made aware of the problems in SBI as long ago as 2005, when he was pressed by local media and activists to look into how Floyd Brown, a developmentally disabled man who can't recite the alphabet past the letter K, was able to articulate to SBI investigators a detailed confession about how he murdered an elderly woman in his neighborhood. Brown seved 14 years in a mental institution before he was exonerated in 2007. Cooper didn't order an investigation into Brown's case until last year, and even then only in the face of a lawsuit.

And even after Cooper’s own damning report and the series of follow-on investigations by the News & Observer, Cooper is treating the SBI scandal as if it were a series of isolated cases and not a systemic problem. Cooper told the paper he sees nothing wrong with lab researchers consulting with prosecutors before performing their analysis, a practice proven to produce biased test results (SBI analysts are also discouraged from consulting with defense attorneys). He also objected to moving the crime lab to a different government agency so that analysts wouldn't be reporting to prosecutors, telling the News & Observer, "You don't want to hobble law enforcement by removing key tools such as technology to prevent them from solving crime." No, you don't. But moving the lab wouldn't do that. It would merely prevent analysts from feeling they need to please prosecutors by providing them with favorable test results.

So will the lab at least open itself to peer review and observation? John Watters, a 17-year veteran of North Carolina's Department of Justice who, as the News & Observer reports, "fights requests for information not specifically listed in the discovery law that ensures that defense attorneys have access to investigative reports," told the paper he'll resist any effort to allow outsiders to evaluate the lab's work. In fact, the lab banned outside observers in 2009. In a hearing the same year, Watters explained his reasoning: 

"I'm telling you that the thing that concerns us most is the precedent this would set, and the potential for harm...we've never been a testing laboratory for the defendant. We are the state's laboratory."

So long as government officials retain that mindset, we'll continue to see forensic scandals like the one currently unfolding in North Carolina. Which means preventable mistakes will continue to send innocent people to prison, and allow guilty people to remain free.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Government corruption...I don't believe it!

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    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.

    ::boggle::

    I don't suppose the technicians are "officers of the court" 'round there, are they? If so, dose this constitute some kind of actionable dereliction of duty?

    Maybe a section 1983 violation?

    Surely this can't just be a "Opps, our bad.", can it?

  • ||

    From constitution.org:

    The traditional definition of acting under the color of state law requires that the defendant have exercised power "possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law,"[18] and such actions may result in liability even if the defendant abuses the position given to him by the state.[19] A private actor may also act under color of state law under certain circumstances.[20] For example, it has been held that a physician who contracts with the state to provide medical care to inmates acts under the color of state law.[21] For all practical purposes, the "color of state law" requirement is identical to the "state action" prerequisite to constitutional liability.[22]

    I don't know enough about the facts of these cases (or § 1983, to be honest) to tell you if you have a cognizable cause of action, but it would appear that lab employees would at the very least fall under the auspices of § 1983.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    How about a brief summary of § 1983 for us non-lawyers?

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Violations of civil rights under color of law.

    When you hear about a "civil rights" suit in the news it has usually been filed under USC 40 section 1983.

  • ||

    It should be mandatory that employees of a law enforcement agency, including forensic scientists, be made aware that if you violate USC 40 section 1983; you lose your qualified immunity.

    That means that you can be held personally liable for the damages awarded to plantiff. House, car, toys, bank account, 401(K) and future earnings; GONE!

    May change some person's pattern of behavior.

  • ||

    Thanks for the nut-punch Balko. It is this kind of thing that has made me change my mind about capital punishment. I'm all for it if we could be sure we got the right guy. Ass-hats like these make that seem like an impossibility.

  • Mike the Grouch||

    Capital punishment is just plain wasteful. Vengeance doesn't pay anyone's bills but the hangman's. True justice demands that a killer make amends to the victims--not the dead guy, but that person's family, friends, business associates, etc. If you kill me, you have improperly denied something of value to my wife, children, and employer: my ongoing efforts on their behalf.

  • ||

    "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 crime lab was probably acting on instructions from the Attorney General. Attorney General's are many times willing to do anything to look like they are doing something to "combat crime", so they can become Governor.

  • ||

    But, but, but,

    CSI! They always solve the case.

  • Greer||

    Yeah, and they have those really cool 3D computers that show in animation what they are looking at. And they always explain to each what they're doing even though they should know. And they're all big breasted women and hunky men. Why wouldn't CSI always be right?

  • Greer||

    And if you happen to work in Miami, everything has a yellow tint to it. And you get to listen to The Who constantly.

    What a fucking piece of shit TV show.

  • BakedPenguin||

    But the way that guy takes off his glasses is soooo cool. He should win an Oscar with acting like that.

  • Caruso||

    Looks like someone...

    *puts on shades*

    ...wants me to shoot their dog.

    YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!

  • Poppin' Caps Lock||

    +1,000,000

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Ah Balko. Always prompt in the delivery of new information that incites my RAGE at government.

    If only we lived in a just world, those who betrayed the public trust and robbed innocent men and women of their property and lives would suffer punishment above and beyond what they caused to others.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It takes guts for a politican to risk being labeled “soft on crime,” especially a politician who is a current or former prosecutor.

    Only Nixon could go to China. I would argue it's less of a risk for a former prosecutor to speak out. Someone like Cooper would actually be perceived to have more credibility when doing so.

  • ||

    It's certainly true in MD that pro-death penalty politicians, like Ehrlich, have an easier time pardoning innocent people and people with disproportionately long sentences, than do the "anti-death penalty" Democratic governors before and after him (quotes because they still don't commute to life the sentences of those on death row.)

  • R2||

    This was a big enough story in NC that it was top of the front page in the Charlotte Observer.

  • The Mossy Spaniard||

    I was actually expecting Reason (Radley, specifically) to jump on this sooner. WBT 1110 in Charlotte brought this up on Thursday, I believe.

  • ||

    For a week. It was a veritable series!

  • ||

    And people wonder why conservatives despise the N&O.

  • Mike the Grouch||

    Actually, I am now wondering why a conservative would despise the N&O. How does sloppy work in the pursuit of justice fit with the conservative philosophy?

  • Amakudari||

    In NC, conservatives as popularly understood are law & order types. (Also, Cackalacka = Carolina.)

  • Amakudari||

    Eh, liberals also complain because of Rick Martinez and the use of the Pope Center and John Locke Foundation as sources. You can't win politically on either side in the Triangle.

  • Tom||

    Didn't read the article. Being in North Carolina, I've gotten enough of this on the local news. Yesterday, one of the investigators said essentially that, while the SBI had an established procedure for reporting positive DNA matches, there simply were no forms for them to fill out or persons to notify with negative matches. So such results were just ignored. In spite of the local media's spin that suggests it was just one or two ignorant or misinformed lab technicians, the investigation proves that this was institutionalized criminal negligence, at best.

  • AJs||

    If there is no government form for IT, does IT exist?

  • Shoeless Chris||

    The Buddhism of bureaucracy, very nice.

  • Amakudari||

    But eh, if there's not a form the technicians should be complaining that there's not one. There should probably be an "oh damn" moment when you find out the guy you couldn't fill out the form for just got a death sentence.

  • sarcasmic||

    That depends on if you value truth over winning.

    If your only goal is to get convictions, who cares if innocent people die?

    If the cops brought the guy to court then presumably he's a scumbag, and if he didn't commit the crime in question he's probably gotten away with worse.

    Everyone is presumed guilty until proven otherwise, and even then it doesn't matter.

  • Highway||

    What? Government workers complaining that there isn't a form for them to fill out for something? You must be high. They would only complain if they are *out* of the form they need to fill out. If the form doesn't exist, their work is done here...

  • Amakudari||

    I am not making a judgment on whether I expect that behavior (I don't), I'm saying that it's not a valid excuse for the technicians. That is, it's institutionalized criminal negligence and the technicians aided and abetted it.

  • ||

    Spin? What logical reason could there be for only having "Yes" forms? Why not just a "Results" form?

  • ||

    The problem with our system is a people system. I spent a 29 year career in crime scene and fingerprint identification. I was taught, in a police agency, that the evidence is my only loyalty - not the agency, not the prosecutor, not the case. Unfortunately, this ethic is no longer the prime directive.
    The NAS findings, if implemented, will only institutionalize even more bureaucracy in an already overburdened system. Nationally, most labs do not process drugs until a trial subpoena is received. DNA has a backlog of upwards of two years in many labs. Unfortunately, the answer that is most often put forward merely inserts even more bureaucracy, and less free thinking. Criminalists do not think outside the box, they do not squeeze every answer out of a piece of evidence - they only answer the questions put to them. Once they did, but now they are bureaucrats.
    We need to reinstitute ethics, permit free reign for criminalists to try to accomplish more than automaton technician work, and also recognize that what is being done is not sterile, it is based upon contaminated samples to begin with, and is not cutting edge in itself, but rather the application of known processes to interrogate evidence and get it to reveal its knowledge.

  • iamtheeviltwin||

    One sure way to do this is to remove Crime Labs from under the auspices of Law Enforcement and Prosecutors.

    While personally I would recommend privatization of the Labs or better yet, contracting with a variety of private labs. Simply creating a degree or two of separation for existing labs from the Law Enforcement community would be a good first start.

    When your loyalty is to the officers and prosecutors who you are "on the same team" with, then you have little incentive to be objective or even better, skeptical.

  • ||

    If all crime labs and forensics were for were to shore up prosecutions, privitization might be an answer. But they should be used as a component in crime solution, which unfortunately they are less and less, especially due to increasing bureaucratization. Too many arrests and thus prosecutions do not depend upon criminalistics prior to their inception. Further, early use of criminalistics is a valuable tool for the investigator (try to recognize, law enforcement and prosecution are two very different components of the criminal justice system, with very different goals).
    Independent minded, ethical criminalists do provide valuable insight and guidance to an investigation. But to be meaningful, they must be situated where they will be of use, in a timely manner. Within the system, and especially within law enforcement, they provide that access, which they can not from the outside.
    At the same time, placement of services outside of law enforcement is not a guarantee of impartiality. It is the individual who determines the quality of service; a return to ethics based criminalistics is mandatory.

  • ||

    "Unfortunately, this ethic is no longer the prime directive."

    According to memory-alpha.org
    "The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of pre-warp civilizations, consistent with the historical real world concept of Westphalian sovereignty."

    I think Kirk and Picard were both clear in stating this.

    But in all serious, I am quite alarmed at what you said. Not surprised, mind you, but alarmed.

  • ||

    I couldn't even read the story once I saw Radley's name on the byline. I immediately winced and scrolled past to the comments.

    Radley should not post these infuriating stories until all people in the continental United States have had their dinner. Better yet, they should not post until after 11:00 pm Pacific. At least that way we wouldn't all get so worked up that we lost our appetites and kicked our dog (and/or wife)

  • GRRRR||

    Continental United States?

    What makes you think that Alaskans and Hawaiians want to become enraged half-starved wife/dog beaters?

  • Lefty4Life||

    "I'm telling you that the thing that concerns us most is the precedent this would set, and the potential for harm...we've never been a testing laboratory for the defendant. We are the state's laboratory."

    Isn't it in the state's interest to get the right fucking guy?

  • Lefty4Life||

    Or the right fucking thread...

  • sarcasmic||

    No. It is in the state's interest to convict someone, anyone, in order to keep conviction rates high.

    Justice has nothing to do with it. Prosecutors with high conviction rates have a good chance of winning future elections for other offices. If they value truth over getting convictions then there's a good chance that they'll never win that Senate seat, so truth takes a back seat.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Alaska is a continental state.

  • ||

    I couldn't even read the story once I saw Radley's name on the byline. I immediately winced and scrolled past to the comments.

    Radley should not post these infuriating stories until all people in the continental United States have had their dinner. Better yet, they should not post until after 11:00 pm Pacific. At least that way we wouldn't all get so worked up that we lost our appetites and kicked our dog (and/or wife).

  • scarf||

    I'm all for it if we could be sure we got the right guy. Ass-hats like these make that seem like an impossibility.

  • bags||

    The Buddhism of bureaucracy, very nice.

  • fendibags||

    So such results were just ignored. In spite of the local media's spin that suggests it was just one or two ignorant or misinformed lab technicians, the investigation proves that this was institutionalized criminal negligence, at best.

  • ||

    Those investigative journalists know when to say when. Otherwise, they might just get "caught" in a compromising situation. Hell, I'm surprised Radley's made it this long without being set up as some kind of underworld drug/prostitution/white slavery kingpin by the Maryland State Police.

  • Poppin' Caps Lock||

    Institutionalized criminal negligence and the considerable lack of sufficient communication in the crime lab/police department are enough to justify taking serious action.

  • George Schiro||

    The article has some broad generalizations and inaccuracies that need to addressed.

    Re: “But the pressure from prosecutors, even when it’s not overt (which it often is), produces bias even in the work of the most fair-minded analysts.”

    Forensic scientists frequently tell prosecutors and law enforcement officers things that they do not want to hear: the fingerprint/DNA does not match their prime suspect; the fingerprint is too badly smudged to identify; the bullet was not fired from the suspect’s weapon; the bullet is too badly damaged to draw a conclusion; the bloodstain patterns do not match their theory of the crime, etc. In the vast majority of cases, the forensic science results never make it into the courtroom because they are exclusionary or inconclusive in nature or, if they are inclusionary, the cases are plea bargained.
    These high profile, isolated incidences of misconduct and /or errors by forensic scientists are unfortunate, but rare, glitches in an imperfect U.S. criminal justice system. Cases of this type make up a very small percentage of cases in the criminal justice system. The factors that have to be taken into account include anyone who comes in contact with the criminal justice system as an arrestee or a suspect; the number of suspects that have been cleared by forensic science; the number of cases in which the victim drops the charges; and the number of cases in which the grand jury does not indict the suspect. On average, only 5% of cases in which a suspect is indicted go to trial. The average state plea bargaining rate is 95%. Of the cases that go to trial, analysis of physical evidence might not be part of the case or it might have little impact on the overall outcome of the case.

    Re: “Last year the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a scathing report on the use of forensics in the courtroom…”

    The report was hardly scathing. Here are two quotes from the NAS report: “There are scores of talented and dedicated people in the forensic science community, and the work that they perform is vitally important. They are often strapped in their work, however, for lack of adequate resources, sound policies, and national support.” “For decades, the forensic science disciplines have produced valuable evidence that has contributed to the successful prosecution and conviction of criminals as well as to the exoneration of innocent people.” The NAS report supports what many forensic scientists have said or thought for years, which is give us the resources and reforms we need to address the forensic science needs of the criminal justice system. Before determining the nature of the report, read it. Do not believe everything you have read about it in the media.

    Re: “Most forensic disciplines were invented by police investigators, not scientists.”

    This misinformation is directly from an article entitled “Reasonable Doubt, The Surprisingly Weak Science Behind Courtroom Forensics” in the August 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics. This has been parroted by many media outlets and is wholly inaccurate. Sir Francis Galton was one of the first people to statistically analyze fingerprints and determine that the probability of two people having the same fingerprint is so small that fingerprints are essentially unique. He was an English Victorian polymath, anthropologist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician. Dr. Henry Faulds was a Scottish scientist who is noted for the development of fingerprinting classification and comparison. Faulds' first paper on the subject was published in the scientific journal Nature in 1880. Dr. Herbert Leon MacDonell is a chemist and researcher who, in 1969, first studied and quantified the flight characteristics of blood and applied this information to the field of bloodstain pattern analysis. In the late 1920’s Dr. Calvin Goddard, a cardiologist and former Army colonel, was the founder of modern firearms identification in the United States. Victor Balthazard, a French professor of forensic medicine at the Sorbonne in Paris, was his European counterpart and first identified individualizing markings on cartridge cases around 1912. Dr. Albert Llewellyn authored an article on firearms identification that appeared in the Buffalo Medical Journal in June, 1900. Dr. Edmund Locard was an early 20th century pioneer in forensic science, particularly in fingerprint identification and trace evidence analysis.

    Re: “Courts have allowed these disciplines to be admitted into evidence before they've been subjected to any serious scrutiny from the scientific community.”

    This is also a broad generalization. In order to get forensic science results into court, it typically has to go through a Frye or Daubert hearing. This is the time for the science to be vigorously challenged, demonstrate how it has been established, how it is valid, and how well it is accepted among practitioners.

    Re: “The methods used in most crime labs disregard critical scientific principles such as blind testing, competency testing, peer review, and statistical analysis.”

    The majority of forensic science laboratories are accredited. All accredited forensic science laboratory personnel must participate in proficiency tests, competency tests, and technical review. In essence, all proficiency testing is blind. The analyst does not know the answer ahead of time. The term “blind testing” is not clear here. Is the author referring to testing that is blind in the sense that the analyst does not know that the samples are part of a proficiency test? Given the current nature and practice of forensic science, a proficiency test disguised as casework is almost impossible to pull off. Forensic scientists have been debating and struggling with this issue for decades. The reason it is doomed to failure is that most cases are triaged in forensic science laboratories. As a result, before working a case, the analyst will typically contact the investigator and/or assistant district attorney to determine if the case is active or a high priority. High priority cases are usually: violent crimes against person without a suspect; cases going to grand jury; or cases expected to go to trial. In order to truly disguise a proficiency test as a case, then a great number of individuals need to cooperate and, in the process, keep it a secret from the analyst. The evidence also has to look realistic. It is more than a matter of depositing some semen on a brand new pair of underwear. The “evidence” also has to undergo a quality control check to make sure there are no contaminants that are going to interfere with the testing. This degree of cooperation and time consuming set up can rarely be achieved.
    As for statistical analysis, not all forensic science conclusions are quantitative; some are qualitative and, therefore, not subject to statistical analysis. For example, approximately 80-85% of the cases submitted to crime labs are drug identification cases. This entails identifying if a substance is marijuana, cocaine, etc. If a percentage or weight of a controlled dangerous substance is reported, then ISO standards require that a measurement of uncertainty is reported. A substance can also be identified and scientifically supported without a measurement of uncertainty. For example, based on testing, blood can be identified. Forensic odontologists have revised how they report and testify to bite-mark comparisons. They are also studying the frequencies of marks left by different teeth. Handwriting analysts for several years now have been shoring up their findings through more quantitative assessments, standardized procedures, and standardized wording. Shoeprints identifications can also be conservatively quantified and random match probabilities can be calculated.

    The problems associated with forensic science are not with the underlying principles and theories. Few people, including the NAS, have examined the historical records that make up much of the foundation of modern forensic science. It is this foundation combined with peer reviewed publications, proficiency test results, and validation studies from then to now that firmly establish the forensic science disciplines used in crime labs. There is room for improvement and many of the problems associated with forensic science are isolated incidents that can be prevented through scientific working groups, lab accreditation, analyst certification, proper training, proficiency testing, rigorous technical review, rigorous cross examination, and the use of opposing experts in court. While these measures will not eliminate all of the problems, it will go a long way in identifying, solving, and minimizing the effects of these problems.

    I apologize for the length of this comment, but I felt that these inaccuracies and generalizations had to addressed.

    George Schiro, MS, F-ABC
    Forensic Scientist
    www.forensicscienceresources.com

  • Amakudari||

    So, several notes.

    1. Three executions. North Carolina has executed only 29 people since due to convictions in 1987-2003 despite possessing exculpatory evidence against at least 3 of them. It's one thing to fail to meet the 99% "beyond a reasonable doubt" threshold, but it's far worse to get there by straight-up lying. There are obviously others on death row who might be exonerated, and of the 26 remaining, who doubts that at least one of them is innocent? Or, riddle me this, what percentage of executions based on falsified law enforcement work is acceptable before we start questioning the need for anything beyond more rigorous accreditation (such as legal consequences, lab independence/a "Chinese wall" between police and the lab, revised legal standards for the admissibility of certain evidence)?

    2. No one here's a Luddite questioning the use of science in combating crime, and frankly the science would have worked in these cases. You spend somewhere around 95% of your post defending forensic science's scientific basis, but the important points raised deal with a) overconfidence in the results, and b) plain corruption. a) is an issue because jurors and people generally are susceptible to endorsement effects: "the court has determined that this scientific method is admissible so it must be accurate." There are risks in presenting evidence that requires trust in experts, risks made clear by convictions based solely on shoeprints or experts with a history of fabrication (read: Steven Hayne). b) is an issue because, as I've shown above, this issue affects over 10% of executions in the relevant time period.

    3. Certification and professional standards only weed out the worst aspirants to a particular profession. (I would know; I work in finance.) You still need real controls and consequences: audits, "Chinese walls" separating conflicts of interest, and accountability for results. Unless you think some forensic scientists, policemen or prosecutors will be serving lengthy sentences for botching at least 230 cases, that does not exist currently.

    4. Seriously, "isolated incidents"? This is a Radley Balko joint. He don't take kindly to law enforcement's isolated incidents. Moreover, we're talking about something very specific that was a feature in >10% of executions and 227 other cases. That's not "rare" or "isolated."

  • ||

    Its hard to give a shit about your long ass reply when your colleagues sent 3 innocent men to their deaths. You can defend them all you want but they have no conscience.

  • ||

    George Schiro MS, F-ABC (Motherfucking Shithead, Fucking Asshole, Bitch, Cunt)

  • Ayn R. Key||

    Corrupt crime lab results in execution? I believe that means the people involved in that lab are guilty of first degree murder, which is a charge that can result in the death penalty.

    The district attorneys too.

  • ||

    George Schiro makes a number of excellent points.

    It is not the placement of labs within the criminal justice system that is the problem. Indeed, if criminalists are to aid in the solution of crime, rather than just propping up the courts, they should be as close to the police as possible. My comments about ethics remain - wherever the criminalists are located, they may take on a partiality if the individual does not maintain disciplined ethics. An impartial criminalist, located in the police service, is better to accurately influence an investigation by quickly providing information that may assist the investigators in their search.
    The other aspect is the need for greater use of third party criminalists by the defense. This is the check and balance system, a quality assurance program that may act as a watchdog for the system. In my career, every poor fingerprint identification that came to light was the result of review by other fingerprint examiners. This included incompetent work and outright criminal work - it was oversight that brought it to light. But the oversight can only exist if the defense recognizes the need to honorably review work - which is unfortunately rarely conducted.
    The output of criminalists has decreased over the past years. This is due to increased bureaucracy - more paperwork, more unnecessary steps - and to an almost union like attitude. Once criminalists looked upon their work as problem solving, bringing forth answers, even when the questions weren't asked. Today there is a growing tendency to see them providing X number of cases a month, and just providing answers to the questions posed to them by the submitters, who often do not realize all the answers that a criminalist may be capable of. But without self initiative, those answers remain unanswered.
    Neither building a new bureaucracy nor divorcing criminalistics from police work will answer problems. Improving the overall quality of the workforce, and providing better checks and balances will.
    To the responder who denigrated Mr. Schiro's comments, that "Its hard to give a shit about your long ass reply when your colleagues sent 3 innocent men to their deaths. You can defend them all you want but they have no conscience," I spent a career of 29 years in police work, in criminalistics. Since then I have spent 8 years thus far in private practice, reviewing fingerprint and firearm cases, crime scene investigations, and also bomb/explosive investigations. We are the people who will be able to correct these problems; others, such as NAS, may be able to look at see faults, but without the experience and understanding of the field, they will never be able to, hands on, correct failings.
    The failings of the field, as I have stated again and again, are people oriented. As are the problems in most others facets of our professional spheres. Medicine is more advanced than ever in history, but we fear most of our doctors. Law schools are abundant, but we question the motives of most attorneys. Morals and ethics are the crux of these, and so many problems, and unless we are willing to recognize that, and address these as societal problems, we will never correct them, but only gloss them over with another layer of whitewash.

    Paul R. Laska

  • ||

    Just to be clear, do you think that executing innocent people is a bad thing?

  • ||

    No one is advocating executing the innocent. Indeed, I believe that the death penalty should require a higher standard of guilt than other sentences.

    With that said, it is a matter of correcting the system so that it works. Which will never be 100%. The system will always be people dependent, and that is where the problems occur. But the corrections that must be made must be to up the quality of the people in the profession, a difficult proposition in a day and age where overall personal discipline, ethical standards, and moral values have declined as severely as they have.

    Too many believe the answers are in further regulation and bureaucracy. Yet it is never the answer. Nazi Germany and especially Stalinist USSR were paragons of bureaucratic, rule engendered government. They were far from paragons of justice. Justice, quality in any field or endeavor, comes from within the people involved. Only be getting back to high quality standards will we begin to achieve the standards that we claim to seek. And not just in forensics, but in all aspects...medicine, manufacturing, sports, whatever...

    Paul

  • ||

    All this DNA evidence leading to false convictions could easily be remedied if they took a DNA sample of every American at birth and kept it in a database. Then they could cross-reference any blood or other DNA evidence found at any crime scene and always get the right guy.

    Actually, if they took the DNA sample while the fetus was still in the womb, they could get around the Constitutional right to privacy since fetuses aren't really considered people.

  • ||

    Shit. I typed that last comment for the lulz, but now realize there will be some folks at Kos and HuffPo who will think this is an ingenious idea and are drafting letters to their Congressmen at this moment.

  • ||

    "We've never been a testing laboratory for the defendant. We are the state's laboratory."

    So he's admitting that the state becomes the enemy of it's citizens if they ever have the bad fortune to be accused of a crime.

  • Dexter||

    As a Blood Splatter Analyst, there is no doubt errors are made, even intentionally. Thankfully, you can count on me to get rid of the bad guys who get away.

  • mike||

  • ||

    If this resulted in the death by execution of three people would that be murder?

  • lilly zhang||

    great welcome every one view my site.

  • lillyzhang||

    here are nice burberry scarves at a good discount,great welcome every one order from us.

  • nike shoes UK||

    is good

  • ||

    I sense some corruption going on in side of the SBI crime lab is the reason i can't get no respond about the drugs that caswell co sheriff dept. sent in why cant we hear or see whats going on with the investigation of the nc DOJ and Roy Cooper why are they the secret of hush hush no news radio or tv is talking about them but they keep talking about the Casey Anthony trial. The situtation of the wrong things they did. Why are we being manipulating with this conspiracy conflict i want to see or hear the progress they are making to bring this to justice is this the reason they can't answer to what i have issues with. Don't no one wants to talk about the investigation. No one wants to talk to me about the drugs result the crime lab never sent back on me. Did caswell co court appointed lawyer sheriff DA judge take advantage of me when you manipulate into taken a plea deal with their conspiracy with the way they did me they were thinking it's over with me guess what i am back
    Thank you
    Matthew coles

  • mbt shoes clearances||

    good

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement