North Carolina's crime lab has made great strides in rebuilding its credibility since a stinging audit questioned blood testing analysis for scores of cases, a forensics expert said Tuesday. But he said maintaining a high standard is an ongoing process.
"The quality is improved but when you're talking about quality issues, it never stops," said Peter Marone, a retired Virginia state crime lab director who heads a panel that monitors the lab's work and makes recommendations. "That bar is constantly being raised."
A 2010 independent review covering a 16-year period ending in 2003 concluded analysts had misstated or falsely reported blood evidence. The review came after a man that served almost 17 years for murder was exonerated when blood tests performed by a lab worker in the case were scrutinized.
The legislature demanded changes in 2011, including the creation of a Forensic Science Advisory Board, which held its quarterly meeting Tuesday at the Raleigh crime lab. The laboratory, which received nearly 64,000 submissions of evidence for the year ending June 30 at its full service lab in Raleigh and smaller offices in Greensboro and Asheville, has done everything legislators told it to do and more, Marone said.
The lab has received international accreditation, and Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office oversees the lab, directed its leaders to undergo a second accreditation from a separate organization. All eligible scientists at the lab are now independently certified in their field. The lab's DNA operations received another perfect quality assurance score in the past year, while other divisions saw more cases completed and processed more quickly, according to the lab's annual report to the General Assembly.
Most of the cases still in the news related to the lab's shortcomings happened 15 or 20 years ago, Cooper said in a recent interview.
"It's important to look at what the people there now are doing and how they have changed and responded to this," Cooper said. "I feel very good about where the crime lab is except for resources, which is the biggest problem."
Cooper's office asked the General Assembly for money to hire 40 additional scientists and staff, but lawmakers agreed to fund about half of those positions. The new hires will perform toxicology testing to serve the western part of the state, since the Asheville office doesn't currently perform those tests.
North Carolina crime lab director Joseph John said more money is also needed to pay higher salaries. Half of the 18 workers who left the crime lab this past year said they left for better jobs. Salaries for forensic scientists were below average in many instances compared to surrounding states, according to the lab report.
"We're conducting a revolving door," John said Tuesday. "We bring them in, we train them, get them independently certified, put them to work, get them some experience, and somebody across the street or down the road or up the road in Virginia says, 'Here's $20,000 a year more, come and work for me.'"
John said staffing limitations mean up to 7,000 toxicology cases are waiting to be processed at any one time. But he wouldn't call it a "backlog" because he said the term "creates the connotation that for some reason we're not doing something."
Staffing is also being worn thin as a result of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said forensic scientists must present test results in person at a defendant's trial. That means scientists have to spend more time on the road and in court and less time in the lab, John said.
The legislature also gave planning money to build a new expanded crime lab in Asheville, which could ease stresses on the lab, but that would still be years away from completion.