Examining a Major Conflict of Interest
Fairness is the first and basic requirement of our justice system. When lives are at stake, it shouldn't be too much to expect a reasonable degree of competence as well.
North Carolinians are outraged at recent -revelations that the State Bureau of Investigation has all too frequently skewed its findings to further the state's case against defendants when the evidence for conviction simply is not there.
As if that were not bad enough, we learned that evidence was often tainted because so-called specialists in certain scientific fields were neither scientific nor trained and certified in their discipline.
The scandal, as noted previously in this space, has created a major headache for the state's criminal justice system. District attorneys now face the massive task of re-examining numerous capital cases in which convictions were based, at least in part, on tainted evidence or evidence collected and analyzed by unqualified people. They also face very serious charges of withholding evidence that would have benefited the defense.
Questions of Liability
Now a legislative panel is looking into the liability of a body with a tongue-twisting name: the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board. This is the entity body responsible for certifying the SBI lab. If you can't trust the accrediting people, who can you trust when it comes to operation and administration of forensic evidence processed by any lab?
What did the representatives of this board, known by the initials ASCLD-LAB, do when they visited the SBI lab? Did they check the credentials and training of the staff? Did they determine the competency of the technicians to collect and interpret bloodstain evidence? Or did they just check to see if the microscope was working and the litmus paper was not out of date?
It is at least one place to begin the comprehensive examination needed to bring the SBI back into its traditional place of respectability and reliability.
'I Belong on No Side'
Local attorney Bruce Cunningham has contributed an insightful analysis of the SBI dilemma for The Pilot. In his comments, appearing elsewhere on this page, Cunningham notes that forensic scientists have no business taking sides in criminal cases. He says their motto should be: "I belong to no side, other than the side of scientific accuracy and truth."
In other words, it is not science at all if evidence is withheld or colored to support the district attorney's side of a case. It should be dedicated to finding the truth and presenting the facts.
Questions have arisen about the ethical relationship between the lab and the state's evidence against defendants. Does it make sense for the party collecting scientific evidence to be part of the same agency seeking conviction of the defendant?
The legislative panel and the investigative committees must first deal with fairness issues before tackling the very hard work of ironing out the current mess at the SBI.
Many of us remember a day when the SBI was held in high regard by the public as well as officials of our judicial system. The people of North Carolina expect a return to those days. We deserve fairness, credibility and respect.
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