Are the SBI Labs Out of Control?

Posted on Aug 07, 2012

The State Bureau of Investigation has become indispensable to law enforcement in North Carolina. Its centralized, expansive resources have made it a key ally to local police and sheriffs in every county. In return, the SBI hasn’t been shy about how its efforts have helped clear major crimes. In addition, some offenses are turned over automatically to the SBI as part of their “original jurisdiction,” including drug and arson investigations, election law violations, misuse of state property, and many crimes involving sexual exploitation of children.

So many criminal prosecutions rely on work by SBI investigators, one could only imagine the chaos in the courts that would result if it turned out that SBI personnel really aren’t as efficient, skilled, or reliable as their reputation suggests.

Guess what, North Carolina? Someone finally has begun to look into this state of affairs, and the picture isn’t pretty at all.

A Follow-Up to the Scandals of 2010

Two years ago, an audit commissioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper found some 230 cases where SBI personnel had withheld or distorted evidence, potentially leading to innocent people being convicted. After that report went public, state officials promised that the SBI would clean up its act. Professionalism and expertise would be the watchwords; scandal and deception would not be tolerated.

Recent disclosures, though, don’t inspire confidence. As part of the agency’s facelift, analysts from the SBI forensic crime laboratories were required to go through a testing process to be certified as experts in their specialties. The problem: about 25 people failed the tests. The next problem: SBI bosses kept those failed tests a secret until the information leaked recently. Those same agency leaders are fighting against releasing the information even today, claiming it is confidential employee data.

This new round of embarrassing news has local prosecutors across the state in a tizzy. They worry—and for good reason—that if the SBI is not seen as trustworthy, then juries will disregard the evidence in forthcoming criminal trials. As it stands, district attorneys can’t identify which laboratory technicians failed their examinations, in order to have any tests performed by those people redone at another lab.

Fallout Will Continue

This muddle won’t be cleared away easily, or soon. Already, some prosecutors are suing the state for access to the personnel lists. In the meantime, skilled North Carolina criminal defense attorneys across the state are finding that defending their clients is—at least for now—somewhat easier, due to the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over SBI lab conclusions.

R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.