Should crime labs be independent of law enforcement?

An NC crime lab has come under scrutiny for misrepresenting blood evidence


Daily Advance

ELIZABETH CITY, NC — While it’s unquestionably wrong — as a recent independent review pointed out — that analysts at the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab sometimes misrepresented blood evidence during criminal trials or withheld evidence critical to a crime defendant’s defense, no one really ought to be surprised that it happened. If there is a real shocker in the recent damaging investigation of the SBI crime lab, it’s that such inappropriate behavior didn’t happen more often.

We say that in light of revelations that suggest that the SBI crime lab, while ostensibly set up to facilitate the pursuit of justice, seems to have operated more like another arm of law enforcement. For example, a lab training manual — whose use was suspended in August — advised SBI analysts to give prosecutors a heads-up about any weaknesses in their cases. What’s more, state laws appear to give SBI analysts’ cosiness with law enforcement an official stamp of approval, telling them to “render a reasonable service to the prosecuting officers (DAs) of the State in the discharge of their duties” and advising them to examine evidence “leading to the identification, apprehension or conviction of criminals.”

The appropriateness of those laws is just one of the items that will need scrutiny as state lawmakers and the N.C. Department of Justice seek a proper response to a recent independent review of the serology unit of the crime lab. The review, sought by Attorney General Roy Cooper and conducted by two former FBI agents, concluded that between 1987 to 2003, analysts in that section of the SBI crime lab sometimes helped prosecutors obtain convictions, most commonly by misrepresenting blood evidence or keeping critical information from defense attorneys. In a report on their review, the two FBI agents said district attorneys across the state needed to reexamine 190 cases in which the handling of blood evidence by the crime lab was questionable, including three cases that resulted in executions.

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