N.C. State Crime Lab's Work Draws Scrutiny
DAVID GREENE, host:
Earlier this year, in North Carolina, a state panel exonerated a man who had served 17 years on a murder conviction. It turns out key blood evidence used to convict him wasnt blood at all. And that case isnt the only one in a state with problems, hundreds more have surfaced.
As Greg Collard reports from member station WFAE in Charlotte, these revelations have put the North Carolina state crime lab under some intense scrutiny.
GREG COLLARD: Greg Taylor admits every day is a struggle; deciding what to wear, what to eat, what to do. Thats because for 17 years, everything was decided for him.
Mr. GREG TAYLOR: So much of your life in prison is routine-oriented, no decision making. You just go through each day being led by the nose through the same routine.
COLLARD: Back in 1993, Taylor was convicted of murder - a murder he did not commit.
Mr. TAYLOR: The prosecutor argued 17 times during closing arguments that - why is this victim's blood on my truck?
COLLARD: Turns out the victim's blood was not on his truck. Crime lab analysts tested the evidence. Those tests came up negative but analysts never let prosecutors know it. In February, the courts exonerated Taylor. A district attorney apologized. A pardon followed, along with a three-quarter-million dollar check from the state.
His case closed, but it opened an investigation of the blood analysis unit in the state's crime lab. An audit flagged 230 cases: 80 of those convicted are still in prison, four are on death row and three have already been executed.
Mr. ROY COOPER (Attorney General, North Carolina): I think that there was the potential for justice to run off the tracks here.
COLLARD: North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Mr. COOPER: I think it's critical in the interest of justice that district attorneys, criminal defense attorneys look through these files to determine whether any injustices have occurred.
COLLARD: North Carolina's Prisoner Legal Services Office begins that process with the mail.
Ms. MARY POLLARD (Director, Prisoners Legal Services Office, North Carolina): I dont think we have all the letters on the table yet.
COLLARD: Director Mary Pollard says after the State's Bureau of Investigation audit was released, inmate letters began to overwhelm the office.
Ms. POLLARD: I had never seen a 200-letter day until the past couple of weeks, and we've had four or five of them since the reporting on the FBI lab.
COLLARD: The audit covers cases from 1987 to 2003. Back then, a negative blood test didnt mean there wasnt blood. It just meant lab workers failed to confirm the presence of blood. So those results often weren't given to prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Chris Swecker is one of the former FBI agents who conducted the audit.
Mr. CHRIS SWECKER (Former Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division): I really didnt see analysts trying to frame people. I saw analysts possibly aligned with law enforcement and I think that colored how they reported their results.
COLLARD: New York attorney Vanessa Potkin, of the Innocence Project, says North Carolina is not alone when it comes to problem crime labs.
Ms. VANESSA POTKIN (Senior Staff Attorney, Innocence Project): We do not have national standards in terms of what is being called science, what is being allowed in our courtrooms, what crime labs are required to put in their report.
COLLARD: Law enforcement agencies run most crime labs. But the National Academy of Sciences says this system leads to bias. In a report to Congress, it calls for a national agency and uniform standards for all crime labs.
The scandal in North Carolina, as well as recent ones in Houston and Detroit, has prompted calls for an independent lab.
It's a concept that Mary Pollard at Prisoner Legal Services supports. Her office has already identified two convictions it will seek to overturn.
Ms. POLLARD: People get a little worked up when they find a juicy case. And we're certainly having more occasion to do that recently.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COLLARD: But her office can only help current inmates. Pollard says that those who have already served their time are on their own.
For NPR News, Im Greg Collard in Charlotte.
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