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Search begins for new SBI crime lab director

A panel of state officials met for the first time Wednesday afternoon to discuss the search process for a new director of the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab after a report released last month revealed agent misconduct through evidence misrepresentation.

Led by SBI Director Greg McLeod, the advisory panel consists of prosecutors, defense lawyers and other representatives of the criminal justice system. The group agreed that the new director should be allowed a salary higher than the current $107,000 and should possess exceptional management and communication skills.

“I feel that [the new lab director] needs to be someone with a significant science background with previous experience working in a crime lab,” said Seth Edwards, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys who sits on the advisory panel.

Earlier this week, former judge Gerald Arnold was appointed interim director of the SBI’s crime lab, one of several changes that could affect the sentences of the 159 inmates currently on death row.

The move, announced Wednesday by Attorney General Roy Cooper, comes after former SBI crime lab director Jerry Richardson was removed from his post last month. The changes in leadership result from an independent report released in August that revealed SBI agents in the crime lab’s blood-stain analysis unit misrepresented blood evidence in about 190 convicted cases between 1987 and 2003.

Cooper could not be reached for comment this week.

“I just have to take the attorney general’s word that he was looking for somebody with no axe to grind and somebody who could be objective looking at the SBI’s standards and reports,” Arnold said of his appointment.

As interim director, Arnold will oversee a full audit of all sections of the crime lab, as requested last month by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.

Officials took a closer look at SBI reports when death row prisoner Gregory Taylor was exonerated of his life sentence in February after 17 years behind bars, because SBI blood analyst Duane Deaver failed to disclose key evidence that could have led to Taylor’s acquittal. Deaver has since been suspended.

Taylor’s case prompted Cooper to request the August report, an independent audit by former FBI agents that reviewed the more than 15,000 cases that had taken place during the 17-year period.

The report raised serious questions about the agency’s investigative practices. The SBI has since faced increased scrutiny as an independent scientific lab.

“It’s an incredibly disturbing issue if we have the SBI presenting pseudoscience or even worse, science that’s biased in favor of the prosecution and ignoring information that might prove somebody’s innocence or throw it into doubt,” said Neil Vidmar, a professor at Duke’s School of Law.

North Carolina is one of 38 states in which a forensic lab is under the state’s law enforcement agency, which could create biases favorable to prosecutions. But some legislators and defense attorneys are now thinking twice about that setup.

State Representative Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said he supports making the SBI an independent agency to prevent a threat to its impartiality.

“[The agency’s job is] to be impartial under the law, but in fact, its trial testimony [is] tilted towards the prosecution,” Luebke said. “Many of us in the legislature favor [SBI independence from the state] and we’ll be working to make that change.”

But Arnold said he thinks, with hesitance, that the current structure is relatively sound.

“Whatever improvements can be made, can be made where it is, but there are other people more qualified to answer that,” Arnold said.

Still, he defended the work of the crime lab and pointed out the role of technology in the lab’s errors.

“The technology and standards we have today are night and day from what they were 10 years ago,” Arnold said.

The state is expected to appoint a new SBI crime lab director within approximately 90 days.

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