Courts & Crime

N.C. lawyers group calls for changes to SBI lab

The state's largest coalition of civil and defense attorneys is calling for the creation of an independent forensic laboratory, pointing to a series in The News & Observer highlighting biased and unscientific work at North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

"Instead of being a tool of unbiased scientific analysis, with the chief goal being discovery of the truth, the SBI crime lab is often a tool of accusation and prosecution, with the chief goal being conviction," said Phil Baddour, a Goldsboro lawyer and president of N.C. Advocates for Justice, a group of nearly 4,000 private attorneys.

Baddour said in a statement that it is imperative the state build "an independent and fully funded crime lab, led and staffed by qualified scientists, who are not beholden to law enforcement, but are only beholden to the scientific method."

The call for an independent lab promises to bring an intense political battle. Some top legislative leaders indicated this weekend they will support measures to split the crime lab away from the SBI.

However, Attorney General Roy Cooper, a former legislator and a well-regarded Democrat who oversees the SBI, has said it's essential the lab stay put. In a July interview, Cooper cited concerns about analysts not having access to certain national databases unless they are sworn law enforcement officers.

A spokeswoman for Cooper did not return messages Sunday asking for a response to Advocates for Justice's call for removing the crime lab from SBI control.

The N&O has been investigating problems at the SBI since February, when Greg Taylor, a Wake County man, was exonerated after a revelation that SBI blood analyst Duane Deaver withheld crucial evidence indicating a stain on Taylor's SUV was not, in fact, blood.

Last week, the newspaper published a series, "Agents' Secrets," which illuminated a bias toward prosecution at the crime lab and analysis out of step with national scientific standards. Practices and policies, some of which were suspended in the wake of The N&O report, revealed a culture in which prosecutors' needs are met at a high cost to defendants. Agency leaders have ignored problems, defended shaky work and sometimes promoted the agents responsible.

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