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Crime Lab Audit Stirs Calls For Independent Operation

A legislative committee meets today to discuss the State Bureau of Investigation. There are increasing calls for the state crime to become independent from the SBI after an audit found problems with 230 cases in which analysts misrepresented or wrongly reported blood evidence. WFAE's Greg Collard takes a closer look at the issue in this report. Law enforcement agencies run nearly all of the country's crime labs. Greg Taylor of Durham would like that to change. He spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit thanks in large part to the failure of an SBI lab analyst to tell prosecutors that key blood evidence actually tested negative for blood. "These scientists are performing these tests and procedures should be reporting in an unbiased way. And, to report in unbiased way, should report to an unbiased authority," Taylor says. The National Academy of Sciences agrees. In a report to Congress last year, it says law enforcement crime labs lead to forensic science bias. The report calls for the creation of a national agency to enforce uniform standards. And it calls for independent crime labs. In North Carolina, there are two primary full-service labs. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department runs its own lab. And then there's the SBI, which conducts testing for the rest of the state at labs in Raleigh, Greensboro and Asheville. Senate President Marc Basnight says he will push for lawmakers to make the SBI lab independent. A spokesman for Basnight, Schorr Johnson says the senator believes it's essential for the lab not to be working for the prosecution. But Gaary Frank, the district attorney for Davidson and Davie counties, worries an independent lab wouldn't be responsive enough to prosecutors and police departments. "For it to work, the lab has to work closely with the prosecution side, and the prosecution side is the one that's supposed to by oath be searching for the truth." After the SBI audit, Attorney General Roy Cooper said he wants the lab to remain in SBI control. But he's since backed off those remarks. "I want to stay open-minded about it and hear from other states to see what they are doing. One of the problems from labs said to be independent is oftentimes they lack funding and have no one to fight for them for their funding, which potentially can be a problem," Cooper says. One of the few independent crime labs is in Rhode Island. It actually has two. The state health department conducts DNA, drug and toxicology tests. A lab at the University of Rhode Island handles ballistics, fingerprints and trace evidence. Director Dennis Hilliard says Cooper has a point. "What I see with those agencies that are tied to law enforcement agencies (is) they seem to have a greater accessibility to resources beyond what the state is willing to provide," Hilliards says. "They have a stronger advocate at the state level for funding, there are grants sent out to law enforcement that can trickle down to laboratories." But overall, Hilliard says the system works. He doesn't buy the argument that independent labs don't quickly respond to investigators. "Cases can be prioritized based on need," he says. "We will make exceptions and moved things up for different departments and get things done. If a request is made to prioritize, we will do that. We do that on a regular basis." And he says his analysts have more credibility when it's time to go to court. "We don't testify as members of a law enforcement agency. We (testify) as employees of University of Rhode Island. We're kind of under the academic umbrella rather than the law enforcement umbrella, and I think that plays a little better with the jury." Hilliard spoke to WFAE from Baltimore, where he's attending a conference of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. He says the problems in North Carolina have been a big topic. For now Attorney General Roy Cooper says he's more focused on correcting problems in the SBI lab that deciding if it should be independent. The audit that flagged 230 cases focused on the blood-analysis unit from 1987 to 2003, when it was replaced DNA testing. Cooper says he's in the process of organizing separate audits of every section of the crime lab. The lab is also taking steps to operate under tougher accreditation standards by 2011.