Durham should opt for privatization of forensic analysis

Jan. 19, 2013 @ 02:45 PM

As recently reported in The Herald-Sun, Durham leaders are mulling the possibility of hiring three State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime analysts, at a combined cost of $186,000, to focus on Durham County. 

The State Bureau of Investigation has a serious backlog of samples to test, often delaying results by up to 8 months.  The Herald-Sun reports that the Durham Crime Cabinet will send this proposal to the Durham City Council and Durham County Board of Commissioners shortly.

The purpose of a crime lab is to objectively analyze forensic evidence from a crime scene in order to produce an unbiased assessment of the facts.  This often includes tests such as blood typing, DNA testing, materials analysis and other tests.  Unfortunately, government-operated crime labs present a serious and direct conflict of interest in administering justice.

An independent investigation at the request of Attorney General Roy Cooper by two former FBI agents into the State Bureau of Investigation in 2010 showed gross corruption.  It was found that more than 230 cases over a 16-year period were manipulated unfairly to produce results that would help secure convictions.  Tragically, this also lead to three innocent men being executed. 

Although the SBI has been appropriately dragged through the mud over these findings, these problems are almost certain to return.  Similar malfeasances have emerged in more than a dozen states across the country and represent an intrinsic problem of the system itself -- a deep-seated conflict of interest. 

The forensic experts conducting these tests should be independent scientists, impartial to the results, not a team player for the attorney general’s office.  Rather than continuing to buy into a broken system, Durham should contract with private labs to analyze their forensic evidence, following the lead of many other cities, including Dallas.  A 2007 report published by Roger Koppl of the Reason Foundation describes an ideal system for forensic analysis.  Private forensic labs would be selected through contract bids.  Then, evidence would be submitted to labs, but at some random interval, the evidence would also be submitted to a second lab for verification without informing the first.  This would provide incentive for each lab to perform an accurate analysis of the evidence, not produce biased data for convictions. 

Although this sort of analysis would likely be most costly upfront, it would provide certainty that the forensic analysis presented in trial was free from coercion and bias and would maintain the integrity of our justice system.  Ultimately, it is possible this approach would even save money by bringing cases to trial quicker, resulting in less time in county jails awaiting results from the SBI, and it would result in fewer incidences of wrongful conviction on the basis of bad data.

I strongly urge the Durham Crime Cabinet, the Durham City Council and the Durham County Commissioners to leave behind a broken system and turn to a viable alternative to restore credibility to our justice system’s forensic analyses.

Jason Melehani is chairman of the Durham-Orange County Libertarian Party