Why can’t the bad apples wear name tags? Sorting out good from bad in forensics

As we have written on this blog many times, it is incumbent upon everyone (judges, prosecutors, jurors, defendants, and defense counsel) involved in the criminal justice system to be skeptical of the forensic science reports produced in court. In fact, it is essential. The few bad apples don’t wear name tags around their necks that tells us that they are the bad apple. The scientific way is that of skepticism until verifiable, validated proof is presented.

Here is a trying story of a bad apple that went undetected and even rewarded through the years. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen and what can go undetected for many years. We need to be skeptical.

According to an article published last week in the Huffington Post:

North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Forensics Scandal Grows With New Evidence of Fraud

A forensics expert for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation repeatedly lied on the stand while providing testimony crucial to the 2003 conviction of a novelist accused of murdering his wife, a state judge wrote in a lengthy order published last week.

Michael Peterson’s conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial in December 2011. In his May 9 order, Durham County Judge Orlando Hudson affirmed the decision and described at length how the expert, Duane Deaver, an agent with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, misled the jury about his qualifications and the reliability of his scientific opinions in the Peterson case.

The revelations of misconduct in the Peterson case are only the latest developments in a nearly three-year scandal that has badly battered the credibility of North Carolina’s criminal justice system. An independent audit completed in 2010 found that agents at the state crime lab manipulated and withheld the results of hundreds of tests to confirm the presence of blood, tainting prosecutions based on that evidence. Deaver was implicated in some of the most serious misconduct, including hiding exculpatory test results from defense attorneys in a murder case.

The allegations in Hudson’s order involve the agency’s bloodstain analysis unit, which was separate from the blood analysis unit and not previously implicated. Bloodstain analysis examines stains to determine how a violent crime may have been committed. Deaver led the unit and trained other agents who worked there in bloodstain analysis.

“Obviously, the findings call into question another major area where there apparently was also widespread misconduct,” said James Coleman, a professor at the Duke University law school and cofounder of the law school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “It’s just another indication of how broad the problem likely is.”

An attorney for Deaver did not respond to a request for comment.

Hudson accused Deaver of perjuring himself while testifying against Peterson, a Durham novelist whose wife’s dead body was found in 2001 at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their home. Peterson argued that his wife died as a result of an accidental fall. Prosecutors called it premeditated murder, relying on Deaver’s interpretation of blood stains.

But an investigation by Peterson’s lawyers found that Deaver grossly exaggerated his experience in analyzing bloodstains at crime scenes during the trial and that the experiments he conducted in the Peterson case were amateurish and unscientific. Deaver had a degree in zoology and lied about being tutored in bloodstain analysis by a senior expert in the field.

Deaver “deliberately and intentionally misled the jury at Mr. Peterson’s trial about the scientific basis and acceptability of his opinions, methods and experiments,” Hudson wrote.

The case against Peterson was circumstantial, and Deaver’s expert testimony was the only evidence presented to the jury to support the state’s charge of premeditated murder. From the stand, Deaver told the jury that he worked on 500 cases involving bloodstain analysis. In fact, he had worked on just 54 bloodstain cases. Deaver also testified that he worked on 15 cases where he was called on to use bloodstain analysis to distinguish an accidental fall from an assault. Records showed Deaver had done no such work.

Hudson said from the bench that he believed Deaver was guilty of perjury in the case. But no charges have been filed against him. In response to queries from the Huffington Post about whether charges would be brought against Deaver, Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said that is the responsibility of county prosecutors.

“In North Carolina, criminal prosecutorial decisions are made by District Attorneys who are locally elected by the people of their districts,” Talley said in an email.

Roy Cooper, the attorney general, confirmed in January 2012 that an internal investigation was underway of past cases involving the state’s bloodstain analysis unit, which was disbanded in 2011. Talley did not respond to a request for comment on the probe.

Deaver, who was fired in January 2011, is also at the center of a growing web of litigation that could ultimately cost North Carolina millions. In one lawsuit, he is accused of deliberately withholding lab results that would have helped prove the innocence of a Raleigh man accused of murdering a prostitute. That man, Greg Taylor, spent nearly 20 years in prison before being exonerated by a state commission charged with investigating prisoners’ claims of innocence.

Peterson has been released on bond pending a new trial.

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