RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s once-maligned crime lab has cut its turnaround time by an average of 150 days to under a year and is close to being fully staffed, but attrition and funding remain major issues, the lab’s director says.
Still, director John Byrd feels confident enough to say that the lab can no longer take the blame for the ills of the state’s criminal justice system. “The state crime lab has been the scapegoat for too long,” Byrd said. “We’re turning things around.’”
Byrd, who was a forensic science manager in the lab before becoming its director in June 2014, updated the lab’s status in a report last month to legislators, saying the 150-day drop occurred in the most recent fiscal year. In an interview, he said the turnaround time is now down to an average of 316 days across all disciplines, with the turnaround time in some areas down to 60 days. In the last fiscal year, the three labs in Raleigh, Asheville and Greensboro accepted more than 25,200 cases that included nearly 51,000 items of evidence.
A North Carolina attorney who blew the whistle about lab practices at the Federal Bureau of Investigation when he worked there in the 1990s agrees the state lab has made great strides.
“They should be used as a national model of how to get it right,” said Fred Whitehurst, who’s now an attorney in Bethel.
The changes have come since 2009, when an analyst’s testimony at a landmark innocence hearing led to an independent review that concluded that analysts had frequently misstated or falsely reported blood evidence during a 16-year period ending in 2003.
The state also is building a new Western Regional Crime Laboratory in Edneyville that’s scheduled to open in 2017. Adding DNA and firearms testing there will relieve the workload at the state lab in Raleigh, as well as the addition in Raleigh of more than 10 DNA analysts who are finishing their two-year training soon.
Some law enforcement agencies believe change isn’t happening quickly enough and have taken matters into their own hands.
In the Triad, for example, several law enforcement agencies are working together to build a lab that will do DNA analysis. In Gaston County, District Attorney Locke Bell has taken steps such as having a local hospital do the blood alcohol testing for driving-while-impaired cases because the backlog had grown to 18 months to 24 months, he said
“We had a lot of DWIs where the person was getting off because the officer would quit before we got the labs back or the judge would dismiss the case because it was taking too long,” Bell said.
Col. Randy Powers of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, which is leading the push for a Triad lab, said the turnaround time can be as long as two years. “We need it faster than that because that means sometimes we have a killer on the street,” he said.
Some defense attorneys question more than the numbers - they remain skeptical of analysts’ objectivity.
Attorney Mark Rabil, director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University, questioned the analysts’ objectivity since the lab, although no longer part of the State Bureau of Investigation, is still under the Attorney General’s Office. Prosecutors have access to results on the lab website, but defense attorneys do not. They must rely on district attorneys to forward information to them.
“I think a lot of the change at least in terms of independence and objectivity is in name only,” Rabil said.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said in an email that the lab cannot disclose results to defense attorney without a court order.
When the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys met in October, prosecutors listed the state lab as their top priority, said Peg Dorer, executive director of the conference. “It is slow and painful, but we are seeing improvement and we are hopeful that we going to see more improvements.”
Martha Waggoner can be reached at https://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc . Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner
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