Progressive Voices

North Carolina’s crime lab scandal remains unaddressed

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Across the country, serious lapses have been discovered in dozens of crime labs in the past two decades. Labs that provide key evidence in criminal trials, including death penalty cases, have admitted to using contaminated equipment and untrained employees, covering up questionable work, and falsifying test results.

But of all the scandals that have surfaced, affecting thousands of cases across the United States, the 2010 scandal in North Carolina’s crime lab remains among the worst, according to a new report by the American Bar Association.

Over a 16-year period, analysts in the State Crime Lab systematically withheld or distorted evidence in an attempt to secure convictions in at least 230 cases, including 10 in which the defendants were sentenced to death and three that resulted in executions. Five of those defendants remain on death row.

This came to light three years ago, but the question remains: What is our state going to do about it? So far, the answer seems to be very little.

Despite the state’s claim that district attorney’s offices have investigated all 230 cases identified in the audit, not one has been reopened at the state’s request.

Yet, little by little, the evidence of this scandal’s human toll is emerging, thanks to the persistence of the defendants and their lawyers.

This summer, Greg Taylor received a $4.6 million settlement for the 17 years he spent in prison for murder because of falsified blood test results. Mike Peterson received a new trial because a discredited SBI analyst provided the blood evidence at his multi-million dollar trial in 2003, in which he was convicted of killing his wife. Now, the couple’s grieving children must endure another trial.

The 2010 crime lab audit identified the case of Patricia Jennings as one in which analysts failed to report test results showing that there was no blood on the wall and ceiling of the crime scene as prosecutors claimed at trial. Once Jennings’ attorneys learned of the concealed test results, they asked permission to conduct depositions of the analysts. At these depositions, which were held in February, more evidence of misconduct emerged. In June, the court ruled that Jennings was entitled to relief from her sentence of death on other grounds. After spending 23 years on death row, Jennings was sentenced to life imprisonment.

How many more families will be traumatized and new trials ordered before we decide it’s time to get serious about figuring out how many innocent and wrongfully sentenced people sit in North Carolina’s prisons and on its death row? Have we forgotten that the railroading of innocent citizens means that the true criminals continue to roam the streets?

The State Crime Lab says it has changed its procedures in recent years, but that does nothing to help people who are already imprisoned or awaiting their executions because of questionable evidence.

We need an exhaustive, independent review of all the State Crime Lab’s divisions — and of the cases in which questionable evidence was used. If the blood division was using junk science and hiding results in order to secure convictions, it is a distinct possibility that there were serious problems in the lab’s other divisions as well. Yet, all but the blood division remain unexamined.

Our state legislature says all we need to do to fix criminal justice in North Carolina is to speed up executions. But if state lawmakers really wanted to ensure our safety, they would guarantee a system that convicts the right people using solid evidence that will hold up under scrutiny — rather than rushing to execute people convicted by a tainted system.

Gretchen M. Engel is the executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which is a partner in the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Go to www.nccadp.org for more information about the movement to replace executions with punishments that are fair, cost-effective and victim centered.

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