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RALEIGH—In February, the North Carolina Innocence Commission exonerated Gregory Taylor, who was serving a life sentence for a 1993 murder he did not commit.
After serving 17 years of his life sentence, Taylor was freed, and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered an independent review of the State Bureau of Investigations Forensics Laboratory the next month.
The results of the review were released last week. The independent review, conducted by Chris Swecker, a North Carolina attorney and former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, examined procedures and practices of the forensic lab between January 1987 and January 2003.
Swecker’s review of the state forensics lab found 230 cases, three of which are Brunswick County cases, in which presumptive tests were used, much like the case in which Taylor was convicted.
The review determined these cases, “In which presumptive tests yielded ‘positive indications for the presence of blood’ but where subsequent confirmatory tests reflecting ‘negative’ or ‘inconclusive’ results were omitted from the final report. The final report in such cases, then, would only indicate the positive results of the less sensitive presumptive test for blood.’”
According to the review, Swecker reviewed 15,419 lab files and found the 230 cases in which lab results similar to Taylor’s were present.
In 40 of these reviewed cases, no suspect was charged. But out of 269 individuals charged with the remaining 190 cases, 80 people are still serving sentences—four of them on death row. Three people have been executed, and five people have died in prison.
Of the 230 cases, “these cases have in common that they contain lab reports that mention positive presumptive test results but omit the results of other more sensitive tests.
“These include: Cases that mention that the presence of blood is not conclusive but fail to report that a confirmatory test was conducted and with negative results; cases with lab files that contain reports that fail to mention of one or more negative or inconclusive confirmatory test(s) and are thus incomplete; cases that contain misleading reports that state that no further tests were conducted when, in fact, one or more confirmatory tests were conducted with negative or inconclusive results; cases in which the laboratory test results were overstated or lab notes contradict the reported result,” the report states.
Brunswick County cases
Three Brunswick County cases, which involve four defendants, have been identified in Swecker’s report.
Mark A. Pendergrast pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Jan. 10, 2000. He was sentenced to 22 years and one month in prison. Pendergrast is currently incarcerated.
According to the case review summary, analysis of items gave chemical indications of the presence of blood, but does not reflect the negative confirmatory test result for one item.
Louis Harm Ash pleaded guilty to second-degree rape March 31, 1991, and is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
According to the case review summary, “Indications for the presence of blood were detected…however, insufficient evidence was observed to allow for conclusive identification for blood on this item.”
Kareem Stevenson and Joey Lavon Williams both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2002. Stevenson is currently serving a 22 year, 9 month prison sentence, and Williams is currently serving a 13 year, 3 month prison sentence.
According to the case review summary, the examination of items revealed chemical indication for the presence of blood but does not reflect the negative confirmatory result.
Lab director search
Last Friday, SBI Director Greg McLeod announced he would convene a panel of law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys to help launch a national search for a new director of the state forensic lab.
McLeod will seek input from national and local experts and lab users for the right criteria, he announced. At his request, Phil Baddour, president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and Seth Edwards, DA for the Second Judicial District and the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, have agreed to serve on the panel.
“There are many challenges in the forensic sciences and with this search we can find the best professional to address them,” McLeod said.
According to the SBI, the current lab director “has been informed that he will need to leave the post.”