Cover Story: Union DA - Review murder cases

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

MONROE, NC (WBTV) - Is it the keystone cops' running the crime lab in North Carolina?

A local prosecutor says he'll re-examine hundreds of old cases after some say junk science is going on at the State Bureau of Investigation.

It's really no laughing matter.

Union County District Attorney John Snyder says he doesn't know if he can trust the work they're doing at the SBI crime lab in Raleigh.

We're talking about evidence from dozens of murder cases that Snyder wants to make sure wasn't tainted by shoddy work at the lab.

It's unprecedented.  Many experts can't recall a time when a county prosecutor has said he will review up to 200 murder convictions in his county to ensure that none has been tainted by mistakes by the state crime lab.  It operates under the SBI, once one of the most-respected law enforcement agencies in the country.

"I need to know that everybody that's in prison should be there."  Union county's top prosecutor John Snyder saying all homicide cases in Union county where they got a conviction will be getting a "once over."  And the convictions could go back years; the exception cases in which the murder defendant confessed.

"We deal in truth," says Snyder.  "And my job is to find out the truth. And it's not to have the evidence conform to what we want. It's we need to conform to the evidence."

North Carolina's SBI crime lab is under the microscope these days for not turning over lab reports that could have cleared at least one defendant.  And for the way it's worked on bloodstain pattern analysis.

Some national experts have criticized the lab's tactics as junk science.  Bloodstain analysis at the lab has been suspended while the state has called in outside experts to investigate.

Snyder at a news conference on Wednesday in Monroe says he doesn't believe any of individuals in the lab involved had any dealings in the Union county murder cases they'll be reviewing, but it's a matter of restoring trust.

"We're going to do an audit of everything to find out what's there and why it's there and how it got there. And that is the purpose of this is to find out if any changes need to be made to what we're doing."

Three highly-respected former law enforcement officers from three different area agencies will be reviewing the cases and they're doing it without pay.  (They are Larke Plyler, former police chief in Stallings; Melvin Farris, a former deputy in the Union County Sheriff's Office; and Bob Holl, a former detective with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's HITS unit.)

If something is found it doesn't necessarily mean the defendant convicted will be let out of prison.

"The sunlight is the best cleansing agent and at this point that's what needs to happen up there."  Jeremy Smith, a defense attorney who practices in the area says he and others in the judicial system don't think the entire state lab is corrupt neither are they ready to say it's just one bad apple.

Especially disconcerting:  Not reporting test results pointing to innocence.

"It is extremely scary to think about something else being out there that could allow that person to not lose their freedom because a choice was made not to turn that over," says Smith.

John Snyder is also calling on Attorney General Roy Cooper to set nationally recognized scientific standards at the crime lab.  They're not being done now, Snyder says.

He is the first D.A. in the state to do such a review.  He's not sure how long it will take to review up to 200 murder cases.

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