GREG TAYLOR: NORTH CAROLINA LAB; PROSECUTORS FACE HUGE CREDIBILITY CHALLENGE ON EVIDENCE AND TESTIMONY OF STATE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: REFLECTOR;
"The independent reviewers recommended the SBI should ensure laboratory personnel “are sufficiently trained in constitutional and statutory discovery requirements, legal aspects of forensic science and the role of forensic laboratories as an objective reporter of facts to all components of the justice system.”
The report said lab staff should be dispelled of “any belief that the SBI laboratory and its personnel serve to support investigation officers and prosecutors only......
”North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered the lab review after Greg Taylor, who served 16 years in prison for murder, was exonerated by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. During the commission’s inquiry it was revealed that a SBI lab analyst had failed to mention in his final serology report that a confirmatory test for blood was negative."
REPORTER GINGER LIVINGSTON; THE DAILY REFLECTOR; Wikipedia informs us that, "The Daily Reflector is a daily newspaper that serves Pitt County and eastern North Carolina. It is headquartered in Greenville, North Carolina. The paper was originally titled "The Eastern Reflector", and was founded in 1882 by David Jordan and Julian Whichard. They founded the paper in a part of their mothers' school house with equipment they bought from another paper they had worked for, "The Greenville Express." It became known and published daily as "The Reflector" on Dec. 10, 1894. The Daily Reflector joined the Cox Newspapers Inc. family in 1996.
BACKGROUND: Seventeen years ago, Taylor was convicted of the September, 1991 murder of Raleigh prostitute Jacquetta Thomas, 26, whose body was found dumped on South Blount Street in Raleigh. Taylor, 47, said he spent the night of September 25, 1991 drinking and doing drugs with friends while he drove around southeast Raleigh to buy crack cocaine. Taylor said he believed police latched on to him for the murder because he and a friend drove along a dirt path off the same cul-de-sac where Thomas's body was found. Taylor and the friend smoked crack, but his SUV got stuck as they tried to drive away. They abandoned the SUV and walked to a nearby street to get a ride. Taylor testified they saw what they thought was a body but didn't report it to police. When Taylor returned in the morning to get the SUV, the police were already there. During several days of testimony, a parade of witnesses poked holes in the original evidence against Taylor. A SBI agent testified that while initial tests on some items from Taylor's sport utility vehicle were positive for blood, follow-up tests were negative. Those negative tests were not revealed to the jury that convicted Taylor. A dog training expert testified that the bloodhound that investigators said found the scent of the victim on Taylor's SUV was not trained in scent identification. A jailhouse snitch who said that Taylor confessed his involvement in Thomas's killing to him stood by his original testimony, but did admit that Taylor got the method of killing wrong. Johnny Beck, the man who was in Taylor's SUV on the night of the murder, testified neither he nor Taylor were involved in Thomas's death. Taylor had exhausted his appeals, but the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed the evidence against him last year and recommended the case to the three judge panel for further review. The commission is the only state-run agency in the country that investigates claims of innocence. Now the Commission has declared him innocent - the first time an inmate has been freed through the actions of the state's Innocence Inquiry Commission.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This story is followed by a story by the reporting team which has been intensively investigating the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) for the News and Observer;
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------- "A review of the State Bureau of Investigation’s forensic laboratory released Wednesday flagged 190 cases for faulty testing, including nine from Pitt County," the Daily Reflector story by reporter Ginger Livingston published on August 18, 2010 begins, under the heading, "Flagged SBI tests include Pitt cases." "Pitt County District Attorney Clark Everett said he would be reviewing the suspect tests and their related cases. In seven cases, all involving homicides, 13 defendants pleaded guilty, one defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and charges against one suspect were dismissed. In the other two cases no suspects were identified, Everett said," the story continues.
"Out of the 14 people who went to prison in the Pitt County cases, one died while incarcerated, six have been released, and seven remain in prison, according to the report.
“My memory of these cases is there was substantial evidence in all these cases,” Everett said. Even if the questionable testing was disregarded, Everett said convictions could be obtained.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered the lab review after Greg Taylor, who served 16 years in prison for murder, was exonerated by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. During the commission’s inquiry it was revealed that a SBI lab analyst had failed to mention in his final serology report that a confirmatory test for blood was negative.
Everett and other prosecutors are now faced with the task of convincing juries that evidence and testimony presented by SBI lab analysts during trial can be believed.
Everett will be put to the test almost immediately. His office is scheduled to begin in the September capital murder trial of Shelton Darrel Mills, who was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder for the August 2007 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Cylvonnia Preddy, and Robert Bizzell.
Following that in November is the capital murder trial of James Earl Richardson, accused of shooting to death Charles Andrew “Drew” Kirby and Edgar Landon Blackley in June 2009.
“It certainly doesn’t help us,” Everett said. “It’s going to be an issue we have to deal with and the SBI is going to have to prove their testing is correct.
“We are definitely going to be asking a lot more questions and be paying attention to the results of all tests, not just the SBI, but of all agencies.”
The review ordered by Cooper examined only the performance of the forensic biology section, which handles blood and fluid evidence. The two former FBI agents who wrote the report reviewed 15,419 lab files produced between January 1987 and January 2003, identifying 230 cases in which the reports were similar to Taylor’s case. In 40 cases, no suspects were charged.
A major finding of the review was the lab had no formal policy regarding the reporting of serology test results prior to 1997. While rules were adopted between 1997 and 2003, the policies were inconsistent.
The SBI lab no longer uses the testing methods employed during the review period so serology reporting issues identified in the review were not found after 2003.
The independent reviewers recommended the SBI should ensure laboratory personnel “are sufficiently trained in constitutional and statutory discovery requirements, legal aspects of forensic science and the role of forensic laboratories as an objective reporter of facts to all components of the justice system.”
The report said lab staff should be dispelled of “any belief that the SBI laboratory and its personnel serve to support investigation officers and prosecutors only.”
The report goes on to recommend that the SBI obtain accreditation under national and international laboratory standards as soon as possible, that it ensure all contents of its files be provided to the prosecutor on a timely basis, and that a “spot audit” of the lab’s DNA testing program using FBI-qualified DNA auditors be conducted “to reassure the public of the efficacy” of the current system.
The report also recommends the SBI conduct an internal review of the issues identified in the report to determine if the problems were “a result of intentional action or, in the alternative stemmed from confusion over reporting methods or human error.”
Everett said he welcomes the report’s findings and recommendations.
“We are certainly concerned about these type of issues and maybe this will further eliminate these problems,” he said."
NEWS AND OBSERVER STORY: REPORTERS MANNDY LOCKE, JOSEPH NEFF AND J. ANDREW CURLISS;
"The North Carolina justice system shook Wednesday as an audit commissioned by state Attorney General Roy Cooper revealed that the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases at the expense of potentially innocent men and women," the News and Observer story by reporters Mandy Locke, Joseph Neff and J. Andrew Curliss published on August 18, 2010 began under the heading, "Probe finds hundreds of cases of mishandled evidence in N. Carolina."
"The full impact of the disclosure will reverberate for years to come as prosecutors and defense attorneys re-examine cases as much as two decades old to figure out whether these errors robbed defendants of justice. Some of the injustices can be addressed as attorneys bring old cases back to court. For others, it's too late. Three of the defendants in botched cases have been executed," the story continued. ""This report is troubling," said Cooper, who oversees the SBI. "It describes a practice that should have been unacceptable then and is not acceptable now."
The revelation came after a four-month review in which two former FBI agents pulled dusty case files from shelves to find the truths that analysts chose to keep to themselves.
Two former FBI agents, Chris Swecker and Mike Wolf, examined more than 15,000 cases at the invitation of Cooper, a Democrat who has been attorney general since 2001. The exoneration of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man imprisoned 17 years for a murder he didn't commit, prompted the review. SBI analyst Duane Deaver admitted in February that he failed to report tests indicating a substance on Taylor's SUV was not blood. Deaver, who was suspended Wednesday, said his bosses told him to write reports that way.
He was telling the truth. Swecker determined that the practice of not reporting results of more sophisticated blood tests was sanctioned by some analysts. In 1997, it became written policy. That policy remained in effect as recently as 2003.
Swecker's findings, he said, signal potential violations of the U.S. Constitution and North Carolina laws by withholding information favorable to defendants. Swecker stopped short of determining whether the hidden results affected guilt or innocence in the cases he examined; often there was other evidence in the cases that linked defendants to the crimes. Still, the withheld information could have made a difference in the sentences handed down.
"This is mindboggling," said veteran Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory. "It is really a nightmare for everyone. I don't know how we are going to make this right."
The audit is another black eye for an already beleaguered SBI.
McClatchy Newspapers reported this month in a series, Agents' Secrets, that analysts across the laboratory push past the accepted bounds of science to deliver results pleasing to prosecutors. They are out of step with the larger scientific community and have fought defense attorneys' requests for additional information needed to review the SBI's work. Cooper dismissed SBI Director Robin Pendergraft after she struggled to answer questions about SBI cases and policies.
"This is such a damning indictment on the SBI," said Staples Hughes, the state appellate defender, whose office oversees appeals of all citizens convicted by juries. "Why didn't they just say, 'We lied.' That's what they did. Sadly, I'm not surprised."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are scrambling to review the 230 problem cases cited in Swecker's report. At least 80 defendants are still in prison, a top priority for Prisoner Legal Services, said Executive Director Mary Pollard.
Swecker's report paints a picture of a renegade unit at the SBI crime lab acting without rules and with misguided notions of the science of blood analysis.
In serology, police use rudimentary presumptive tests at crime scenes to determine where blood might be. Those tests are fallible, prone to giving false positives. So, analysts depend on more sophisticated, confirmatory tests to determine whether a substance is, in fact, blood.
Before 1997, the serology unit operated without report-writing guidelines. Analysts set their own criteria until 1997; that policy sanctioned the practice of not reporting negative or inconclusive results of confirmatory tests in lab reports.
Swecker found polices and practices out of step with the rules of serology. They were also far afield of fairness, according to the report.
"There was anecdotal evidence that some analysts were not objective in their mindset," Swecker wrote.
Tests used to confirm the presence of blood never yield "inconclusive results," Swecker noted. Two analysts interviewed for the report told Swecker that despite volumes of warnings about the potential for false positives on presumptive blood tests, they didn't believe it because they had not gotten a positive result when testing plant material and bacteria known to signal false positives. Those two analysts believed that positive presumptive tests were absolute indications of blood.
Eight analysts were involved in these bad practices. Some are dead; a few are retired.
Four still work for the SBI, and another performs contract work for the agency.
Behind the five cases Swecker deemed most problematic: Deaver, a 23-year veteran of the agency.
New SBI Director Greg McLeod suspended Deaver on Wednesday, pending further investigation.
The cost of these errors was tough for lawyers to comprehend Wednesday.
"This report reveals staggering lack of competence at the lab," said Mike Klinkosum, a Raleigh lawyer who represented Taylor in February and helped discover Deaver's withheld test results. "It's an abomination of the criminal justice system and an affront to all the decent law enforcement officers out there doing their jobs."
Cooper delivered copies of the report and a list of affected cases to district attorneys across the state little more than an hour before announcing his findings to the public.
At least one met the findings with anger.
"We've been out here asserting things as fact that just weren't," said John Snyder, district attorney of Union County. "Now, when I've got jurors coming in, I've got to enter into a whole line of questioning I never should have been forced to do. They won't trust us."
Snyder, a Republican, called for an independent audit of the entire crime lab.
On Wednesday, Cooper promised a more independent review would follow and that McLeod, the new director, would bring in experts as needed.
"The lab cannot accept a lack of thoroughness," Cooper said. "It cannot accept attitudes that are not open to the possibility that a mistake has been made. It cannot ignore criticism and suggestions from the outside.""
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be accessed at:
My interest in forensic pathology began with my Toronto Star investigative reporting into once famed since disgraced former doctor Charles Smith. I began this Blog after retiring from the Star in 2006 in order to follow the aftermath into the independent Goudge inquiry into many of Smith's cases. I have now begun to focus on cases involving flawed forensic science no matter where they occur (the recent Amanda Knox prosecution in Italy, for example) and am fascinated by the interest in the Blog from people in countries throughout the world. In another development, my interest in "junk science" "pseudo-experts" and the miscarriages of justice they all too often cause has drawn me deeply into the on-going U.S. death penalty debate where so many troubling cases involve issues relating to DNA and other developments in the world of forensic science. For all of this I rely on my experience as a reporter at the Toronto Star, my work as a lawyer in Ontario's criminal courts, and my abhorrence of injustice. Please send cases and developments which may be of interest to this Blog to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read on! Harold Levy.