The Raleigh News & Observer and other media outlets have reported that North Carolinas State Bureau of Investigation crime lab has distorted evidence or withheld exculpatory evidence in over 200 cases, three of which resulted in executions.
Damning evidence, including reports of pressure placed on analysts to produce results supportive of convictions, was uncovered when the attorney general, in response to repeated complaints from lawyers, ordered an investigation.
Until 1997, if a substance that the police suspected was blood tested negative, no report was issued as a matter of policy.
Greg Taylor served 16 years in prison after he was convicted of murder. The blood found in his vehicle wasnt blood at all, but this information was withheld from the defense and from the court. An analyst testifying at Taylors innocence hearing said technicians were told to ignore the results of more accurate laboratory tests for blood if they contradicted results of less accurate field tests conducted by the police.
In another case, DNA from blood found at a murder scene was said to match the defendant. Suspicious, the defense attorney obtained a court order for retesting at another lab, which found no match.
It was later learned that the bureaus laboratory technician had swapped a blood sample taken from the crime scene for the defendants blood.
A 2007 training manual coaches analysts to beware defense whores and states that, A good reputation and calm demeanor also enhances an analysts conviction rate.
Why would an impartial analyst wish to enhance the conviction rate? Reports imply they do so to please prosecutors and law enforcement managers of police laboratories.
It would be bad enough if the North Carolina bureau were an isolated example. It isnt. The North Carolina fiasco is like other scandals reported in Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, Michigan, Texas and at the FBI.
Surely this is a systemic problem.
A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Justice said, Weve never been a testing laboratory for the defendant. We are the states laboratory.
That mentality, in a nutshell, accounts for much of the problem. The system is designed so that its easy for forensic scientists to forget that impartiality is their most important goal and protection of the innocent is just as much their job as conviction of the guilty.
The underlying psychology is called contextual bias.
In many jurisdictions, forensic scientists work closely with police and prosecutors. They are informed of investigative information and of the police theory of the case, and this information influences them to believe in the guilt of a certain suspect. This conviction influences their actions and their interpretations, at least subconsciously and sometimes overtly.
Most people working in the criminal justice system have good intentions. Its gratifying to be part of a team dedicated to justice, and nobody wants to let the team down.
Look at CSI: Scientists, cops and lawyers; the camaraderie, the common purpose, the sense of righteousness.
CSI is fiction. In real-life, laboratories shouldnt go down that path.
Clearly, some of them do.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.