North Carolina Continues Review of Drug Cases

A year after the verification of serious deficiencies in the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime lab, the lab's acting director affirms that significant progress continues moving the lab in the right direction. Former North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, who founded the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, disagrees. Raleigh's WRAL, Channel 5, quotes Lake as stating that progress could be faster.

North Carolina's SBI came under review in February 2010 after the commission's three judge panel, based on DNA evidence, exonerated an inmate wrongly convicted of a 1993 murder. The review disclosed that the state crime lab failed to provide potentially exculpatory blood evidence to defense attorneys in nearly 200 cases. The review considered state crime lab policies and procedures from 1987 to 2003. It found 230 cases where inaccurate reporting concealed room for reasonable doubt.

The 230 cases fall into four categories. Some claim blood presence as inconclusive, while more detailed studies proved there was no blood evidence. Others merely exclude tests that had negative results, which would have favored defendants. Some state no further tests were conducted in reports, but files show additional tests proved negative, and some just overstate actual results or have lab notes contradicting the results the lab reported.

Among those 230 cases 40 never produced a suspect to charge. Among the remaining 190 cases a total of 269 individuals faced charges. Eighty of those charged continue serving sentences. Four of them are on death row. Five died in prison, and three were executed.

The review put the work of three specific agents in question, and these agents still remain on administrative leave instead of being fired. The state crime lab director who was fired in this case is also appealing that termination. A judge has recently ordered mediation in his wrongful termination claim.

The interim director maintains that things have improved within the lab itself. His office has no bearing on the claims of former or sidelined employees, which the professional standards office must handle. The SBI crime lab examines evidence in 43,000 cases a year. Defendants who cannot afford independent reviews of its evidence depend on valid work and accurate reporting for their attorneys to represent them in trials, hearings and plea negotiations.