SBI Articles: September 21st: SBI Oversight

News&Observer: Editorials: Who’s checking?

“Problems with the crime lab of the State Bureau of Investigation are now well-documented, and not even in much dispute. A News & Observer series and an audit commissioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper (who supervises the SBI) have shown lab results and testimony from agents to be gilded for prosecutors. Prior to the development of DNA testing, blood analysis was sometimes reckless.”
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“Now state legislators are asking, what to do next? One answer seems to be clear. The SBI lab needs a new team of accreditors. Frankly, Cooper and the now-former SBI director, Robin Pendergraft, should long ago have questioned whether an outfit called ASCLD-LAB, with headquarters in Garner, should have been involved in reviewing the SBI lab’s accreditation. That company has been headed since 1995 by Ralph Keaton, a former SBI agent who was the second-in-command at the agency’s lab during the time that some of the questioned cases were proceeding. Another official with ASCLD-LAB is also a former SBI official.
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“What would happen if an investigator from the state auditor’s office, who was once a high-ranking official in another state agency, was given the task of auditing his or her former agency?

You think there might be a bit of public outcry about a conflict of interest? Do you think auditors’ offices around the country have policies to prevent this sort of thing?

The answers: Yes and yes.

Yet, for a number of years, state law enforcement officials batted nary an eye when it came to a lab accrediting agency headed and managed by former SBI lab technicians accrediting the very lab where they once worked.”

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“To counteract that skepticism and ensure defendants get fair trials, some attorneys and lawmakers, including state Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, have already called for setting up a crime laboratory that’s independent of the SBI. Local criminal defense attorney Mike Sanders recently told The Daily Advance that he believes the separation would “be to everyone’s benefit because it would remove that cloud of suspicion” now hanging over the lab’s work.

Cooper and others in law enforcement have cautioned decision-makers to go slow on the idea, pointing out that many other states don’t have crime labs separate from law enforcement and that setting up an independent lab in North Carolina could be costly. Cooper believes the state’s first priority should be on investigating and fixing problems it has and may have at the lab. After then, he says, officials can determine where the crime lab should go.

That sounds like a reasonable approach to us. But given that the main interest here is justice, not control or costs, we think the crime lab ultimately will have to be removed from SBI oversight. We also think state laws will need to be revised to ensure that there’s no confusion in the future that the crime lab’s principal tasks are the scientific study of crime evidence and the presentation of those facts, not assistance in prosecutions.”

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