PRNewswire: N.C. Resident Questions State’s Use of Death Penalty in Federal Court

N.C. resident Donna Pilch filed a lawsuit in federal court which questions whether it is constitutional for North Carolina to use the death penalty when it is allegedly using questionable science and methods to convict people. The lawsuit names Attorney General Roy Cooper as the defendant, because he is responsible for the State Bureau of Investigation, which, according to an audit done by a former FBI agent, has been using questionable science in its serology (blood) and ballistics units.

Article available here: N.C. Resident Questions State’s Use of Death Penalty in Federal Court

North Carolinians eneasy with executions according to new poll

From the Fair Trial Initiative:

North Carolinians Don’t Want Executions Under Cloud of
Tainted Evidence, Racial Bias and High Cost

More than two-thirds of North Carolinians believe executions should be halted in the wake of the SBI scandal, 58% percent believe a finding of racial bias should prohibit an execution, and more than two-thirds are willing to consider ending the death penalty due to the high cost of capital punishment, a new poll shows.

Public Policy Polling surveyed 517 North Carolina voters between Nov. 19 and Nov. 21. Eighty percent of respondents identified themselves as either moderate or conservative, and half of those surveyed voted for John McCain in 2008.

“This poll showed us that people of all political affiliations have grave concerns about how the death penalty is used in North Carolina,” said Mark Kleinschmidt, executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative in Durham. “We all care about truth, fairness and efficiency in a system that hands down the ultimate punishment.”

Among the key findings were:

● Sixty-eight percent of people surveyed said executions should be halted until problems with blood tests at the State Bureau of Investigation are fully investigated.

● Fifty-eight percent said defendants should not be executed if a judge finds that racial bias played a role in their trials.

● Sixty-four percent of respondents supported replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole or were not sure whether it was a good idea to continue using the death penalty in light of the more than 11 million dollar per year extra cost of the death penalty.

The poll came in the wake of two major events that have cast doubts on the fairness of the death penalty in North Carolina.

This summer, an audit showed that the State Bureau of Investigation, whose lab processes physical evidence for virtually every trial in North Carolina, had withheld or misrepresented the results of blood tests that would have been favorable to the defendants in more than 200 cases.

In three of those cases, the defendants had already been executed, and four more are on death row. The state is looking at ways to reform the lab’s practices, but few concrete changes have been made and none of the tainted cases has been fully investigated.

“The voters clearly told us that they do not want people to be executed unless we can be absolutely sure that they got a fair trial,” said Kleinschmidt. “Right now, there are just too many questions hanging over our capital punishment system.”

Also this summer, a comprehensive study revealed that racial bias still taints capital trials.

The study, by researchers at Michigan State University School of Law, showed that those convicted of killing white victims are almost three times as likely to get a death sentence as those who kill minorities. The study also found that black jurors are being disproportionately excluded from capital juries.

About 150 inmates have filed claims under the N.C. Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009 to root out racial bias in capital trials. Death row inmates who can prove bias before a judge will have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole.

“People want a fair justice system,” Kleinschmidt said. “People want a justice system that is colorblind.”

Many of those polled said they were not sure the millions the state spends every year on defending capital cases is worth it — especially in a time of crippling economic woes.

Duke University Professor Philip Cook found in a 2009 study that defense in capital cases costs the state $11 million each year. The study did not take into account the costs of judges, prosecutors, police, investigators and courtroom personnel used in capital trials — so the actual cost of the death penalty is likely much higher.

“We are in the midst of an economic crisis,” Kleinschmidt said. “With false evidence and clear racial bias in death penalty trials, how can we justify the costs of such a flawed policy?”

SBI Articles: October 13th

News&Observer: SBI veterans wrote and approved bad blood policy

The audit, conducted by two former FBI supervisors and released in August, found that SBI lab reports failed to report blood test results that could be favorable to the defendant.  It discovered the withheld test results in lab notes taken by analysts during tests. The SBI did not routinely give those notes to prosecutors until after a change in the law in 2004; that change came after the SBI and prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in the case of Alan Gell, who was wrongly convicted of murder.”

“Until 2003, blood tests typically had two steps.  The first test, the presumptive test, was often performed at the crime scene to see whether there could be blood evidence. The presumptive test has limitations because some plants, chemicals or metals can give a positive result.  If the presumptive test was positive, agents would collect the evidence – clothes, shoes, a piece of carpet or bedsheet – and send it to the SBI laboratory to run a confirmatory test called Takayama.  Prior to 1997, SBI policy gave no guidance on how to report Takayama test results. Some agents didn’t mention the confirmatory test if the result was negative for the presence of blood. Other agents would report the positive presumptive test and note that “additional tests failed to confirm the presence of blood.”

News&Observer: Man jailed 12 years wants case dropped

“Allen has always maintained his innocence, even as he agreed to a plea that spared his life. Allen, who was 19 at the time of the girl’s death, was taking care of the child in a Garrett Road apartment complex when she died. Doctors said the girl had been assaulted and died after being shaken violently.”

“Moreover, Williams argued in the motion, information has not been provided about an SBI polygraph test of a key witness; that other evidence, including all medical history records of the child, has been lost or destroyed; that witnesses can’t be found because of the age of the case; and that investigators did not look beyond Allen in their probe.  Williams wrote that keeping evidence from Allen while he faced the death penalty is “truly alarming behavior deserving of great condemnation and sanction” by the court. Williams wrote that at least two other people could have harmed young Adesha Artis, but that investigators focused only on Allen and did not seek to determine the facts.”

WRAL: Cooper names another interim chief of SBI crime lab

“The appointment of Joe R. John Sr. is the second time in five weeks that Cooper has tried to find someone to guide the crime lab while a nationwide search is conducted for a permanent chief.”
“John, who served on the state Court of Appeals from 1992 to 2000 and was previously a Superior Court and District Court judge in Greensboro, will be responsible for auditing all sections of the crime lab to ensure that test results are accurate and have been properly reported.”

Chapel Hill News: Opinion: Death penalty moratorium is not enough

Guest columnist, Frank R. Baumgartner

“In light of revelations that the State Bureau of Investigation offered false or misleading evidence in hundreds of cases, a moratorium isn’t enough. All 159 of North Carolina’s death row inmates should have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole.

It’s the only solution that makes sense in the wake of a scandal so messy it may never be fully sorted out. It also would save North Carolina millions of dollars that could go to schools, social services — or cleaning up the SBI’s crime lab.

A moratorium won’t change that. A study this year found that, even though North Carolina has not executed a prisoner since 2006, the death penalty costs the state $11 million a year. Analyzing the role of the crime lab in each of these cases will likely add tens of millions of dollars to this cost, and few people currently on death row will ever be executed.

Even if we don’t care about money, we should care about the truth.”

Full article here: Death penalty moratorium is not enough

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.”

Video: SBI Lab Protest video report from Tuesday’s press conference

Glen Edward Chapman at the press conference on Tuesday

The CBS Channel 7 video report of the press conference held on the Buncombe County Courthouse steps, featuring NC death row exoneree Edward Chapman; MVFR member Dr. Jean Parks and NC State Representative Patsy Keever.

CLICK THE LINK FOR THE VIDEO

«SBI Crime Lab Protest

SBI Articles: September 15th

ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES STORY ON OUR TUESDAY PRESS CONFERENCE!

Asheville Citizen Times: Asheville pastors: SBI crime lab woes show need to eliminate death penalty

“North Carolina’s criminal justice system is so fraught with cheating that lawmakers should eliminate the death penalty to keep innocent people from being executed, local pastors and an exonerated death row inmate said Tuesday.

Speaking at a news conference in front of the Buncombe County Courthouse, participants said recent revelations about fraud in the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab only underscore an enduring problem.

“Our faith in the criminal justice system is shaken, but our resolve to make it better (is) not,” said the Rev. Jim Abbott of St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church. “We are deeply concerned innocent people may have been wrongly convicted.”

NPR: N.C. State Crime Lab’s Work  Draws Scrutiny

Click on the link for audio and a transcript of the story

Fayetteville Observer: Editorial: Rebuilding – State crime lab overhaul is urgent business

“When hearings on the State Bureau of Investigation’s discredited crime laboratory begin this week, there will be a broad range of opinions on how to restore its integrity and credibility.

But unanimous agreement is likely on one thing: Sweeping change is urgent.

The hearings, by a joint House-Senate committee co-chaired by Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, will begin Thursday. Glazier and other members of the oversight panel say they haven’t decided if they want the lab to continue as part of the SBI or to become an independent unit, as Senate leader Marc Basnight has suggested. “The most important thing we have to do is return credibility to the State Bureau, many of whose experts are exceptionally good,” Glazier said.”

SBI Articles: September 13th

Full article here: Fayetteville Observer: State officials work to restore trust in SBI lab

“The reports about North Carolina’s crime laboratory have been damning: Evidence concealed, bias, analysts with little scientific training, an innocent man imprisoned.

Now, prosecutors and defense lawyers are preparing to review numerous cases that were mishandled by State Bureau of Investigation analysts between 1987 and 2003. The state attorney general is replacing the lab’s leadership and is pursuing further review of the staff’s training, policies and practices.

And state leaders are grappling with how to assure the public that its criminal justice system is fair.”

The Herald Sun: Hard numbers key questions

“North Carolinians have long supported capital punishment.

In fact, even in the middle of disclosures that the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab had falsified and misrepresented evidence that may have affected more than 200 cases, some voters remain staunch believers in the death penalty.

The conservative Civitas Institute commissioned a poll of 400 unaffiliated voters, who were asked “Do you support or oppose the death penalty for first-degree murder?” between Aug. 16 and 18.

Sixty-four percent said they totally support capital punishment, compared to 27 percent who said they totally oppose it. (In the Triangle, the numbers broke down to 61 percent in support, 31 percent against.)

On the other hand, as far back as 2004, polls showed that 64 percent of North Carolinians supported a temporary moratorium in order to study how the state manages capital punishment.

Shortly thereafter, the North Carolina Medical Board forced a de facto moratorium on the state, when the board said it would take disciplinary action against physicians who take an active role in executions. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in May 2009 that the NCMB had exceeded its authority.

Also in 2009, the legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, which gave death row inmates a year to challenge their convictions. We will be sorting through the resulting challenges for some time to come.

As a result, North Carolina hasn’t executed a prisoner since Aug. 18, 2006. We’re four years into an ad-hoc, strawman moratorium, anyway, and the ugly truths about our racial bias and our shoddy work on evidence is just starting to emerge.

Once again, we urge the legislature to formally halt executions in North Carolina.”

Winston Salem Journal: Opinion: The SBI Lab

“The proposal to separate the state crime lab from the State Bureau of Investigation is gaining traction in the legislature. As we said here last month, the SBI’s lab should be put under another state agency, where its staff can work independently as unbiased scientists — not sworn law-enforcement officers.

An audit of the lab ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper revealed analysts omitting, overstating or falsely reporting blood evidence in cases involving 269 people from 1987 to 2003. A recent series in the Raleigh News & Observer detailed problems in blood evidence, as well as in other areas of the lab’s work.

Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Joe Hackney are the most powerful among several leaders voicing concern about the lab. Basnight wants to remove the lab from SBI control so that it does not report to police or prosecutors. “You have to separate that connection,” he told the Raleigh newspaper last week. “There were people who did anything to secure a conviction. How many innocent people have been convicted?”

Cooper, who oversees the SBI, has been working hard to reform the lab and keep it under SBI control. But some lab scientists have compromised their work in the efforts to help police and prosecutors in several cases in recent years, and that may well continue as long as they’re working for a law-enforcement agency.

Perhaps the legislature could place the lab under the Administrative Office of the Courts or the state Medical Examiner’s Office. It could be run by a forensic scientist and be overseen by an advisory panel of defense attorneys, police officials, prosecutors and forensic scientists appointed by the governor.

Such a move is overdue. “The SBI is supposed to do good work and be fair, neutral and truthful,” Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Chapel Hill, who oversees the criminal-justice budget, told the Raleigh paper. “It doesn’t look like we got what we paid for.”

«The SBI lab

SBI Articles: September 10th

Full editorial here: News&Observer: Editorials: SBI agenda

“Perhaps the video told us all we needed to know. A couple of SBI agents responsible for analyzing bloodstain patterns saw themselves as creative geniuses. When they reproduced a stain that backed up their theory of a suspect’s guilt – and captured it on tape – they were ecstatic. Steven Spielberg (or Peter Sellers) couldn’t have been prouder.

Now we learn, as The N&O reported yesterday, that the State Bureau of Investigation’s bloodstain pattern program for years was basically winging it. There were no written policies and the outfit operated with minimal supervision. Most training took place in-house, provided by an agent whose own training in the field was modest at best.

Attorney General Roy Cooper has “suspended” work by these analysts, and no wonder. Based on what’s been disclosed about their methods, they’d be laughed out of court if they showed up to testify.”

Full article here: The Sun News: James Jordan murder case pulled from SBI report

“Independent reviewers have removed the killing of Michael Jordan’s father from a list of cases mishandled by North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation, officials said Thursday.

Former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker said the case was pulled after a second look at the documents. Swecker’s review had concluded last month that the SBI failed to disclose that it had done four inconclusive tests on blood evidence in the James Jordan case. But Swecker said Thursday that he missed language in which the SBI had reported that “further analysis” failed to give conclusive results.

Defense attorneys for one man convicted in the Jordan case, Daniel Andre Green, had argued that the physical evidence used to convict him was weak.”