State Losing Much of Its Faith in SBI
The other day, a friend made a disparaging remark about North Carolina's highway interchanges.
"Haven't you heard?" I replied sarcastically. "DOT (the Department of Transportation) trains its own engineers."
Of course, DOT doesn't train its own engineers. They're trained at engineering schools, many at N.C. State University. And it's not clear to me that highway interchanges in North Carolina are either inferior or superior to those in other states.
My joke was directed not at DOT, but at another state agency under the microscope these days - the State Bureau of Investigation.
The News & Observer of Raleigh, in a series of stories, has shown how the SBI crime lab has been anything but a professional operation. The stories revealed lab technicians slanting test results to favor prosecutors and testifying to findings not backed up by the facts.
A Raleigh man, Greg Taylor, was -falsely imprisoned for 16 years because of such testimony. A juror foreman in another murder case called SBI lab -evidence and testimony "fraud." Other experts examining the lab's work called it "junk science" and "malarkey."
At least as astounding was the -newspaper's revelation that most SBI lab technician training is done in-house. The man whose slanted work helped put Taylor in prison, Duane Deaver, trains other bloodstain pattern analysts. He has a degree in zoology. The head of the lab has a degree in communications.
Following the SBI's lead, why not repeal professional licensing requirements to allow news reporters to perform brain surgery and dentists to practice law?
In the wake of these outrages, some critics have been calling for the state lab to be moved from under the SBI's purview. Science should stand on its own, not be shaped and formed by the views of law enforcement and prosecutors, they argue.
These critics point to a recommendation by the National Academies, a group of leading scientists, that all forensic labs be independent of prosecutors.
The recommendation ignores some basic facts: Prosecutors and all those behind them represent the state; their evidence is the state's.
The problem here isn't where the lab is housed. It's prosecutors and law enforcement officials - whether detectives or lab technicians - who have forgotten or never understood their proper role in the legal system.
Forty-three years ago, Supreme Court Justice Byron White captured the very different standards that prosecutors and defense lawyers operate under. White wrote that prosecutors must be dedicated to "the ascertainment of the true facts surrounding the commission of a crime. To this extent, our so-called adversary system is not adversary at all, nor should it be. The State has the obligation to present the evidence."
In each of the cases cited by The News & Observer, the state and the prosecutors representing it failed to meet that obligation.
Their failure was aided by an incompetent crime lab. Only better training - in science and legal ethics - will prevent the state from continuing to fail when it comes to presenting all the evidence.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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