The Audit Is F’d Up – Part One
Written by Brandi Abbott
Last week’s episode left off with us learning that the audit of the SBI Crime Lab revealed 230 mishandled cases. This week F’d Up will delve into the audit, but first… an important content warning for sexual abuse and child abuse.
First in the audit, they took a sample of cases from 1989 to 1991 and found 30 cases consistent with the scenario in Greg Taylor’s case. Then they reviewed all 15,419 files from 1987 to 2003, looking specifically for cases that had similar language to Greg’s case such as “indications of blood” or “chemical indications for the presence of blood”. Out of that search criteria, they pulled 932 files. Each of those files were thoroughly reviewed and 230 of them contained at least one instance of “where the lab notes reflected that a positive presumptive test for the presence of blood was followed by a confirmatory test of which results were negative, inconclusive or no result.” None of these had the negative test results recorded anywhere except in the analyst’s lab notes. In 40 of these cases, law enforcement was either not able to identify a suspect or the suspect wasn’t charged so they did not result in wrongful convictions, and in 20 additional cases there was either a dismissal or the suspect was found not guilty.
The next phase of the audit concentrated on confusing language and they found 105 cases similar to Greg’s. Nine of the cases resulted in dismissals or not guilty verdicts and in the remaining cases, the defendants had served their time or been released.
The next phase was “misleading reports.” There were 36 cases that contained reports that said no other tests were conducted but they had been with negative or inconclusive results. Three of these cases had defendants who were still in prison at that time. The final phase of the audit was “misrepresented final reports” which involves cases where the actual results of the confirmatory tests were not reflective of the results contained in the lab results. There were five cases in this category and… they were all handled by Duane Deaver.
According to the audit report, not all of these cases resulted in a wrongful conviction but a number of cases warranted a reinvestigation. The recommendation was that if anyone wanted to look into these cases it was up to the defendant, their attorney, or the prosecution to determine whether or not the case was worth reopening. Attorney General Roy Cooper received the report, distributed it to DAs across the state, and then released it to the public.
One of the names on that list was a man named Derrick Allen who lived with his girlfriend and her two year-old daughter in 1998. On February 9th, 1998 his girlfriend went to work, leaving him at home with her daughter and a woman who was staying with them named Kia Ward. Around half an hour after his girlfriend left, Derrick called 911 because the baby had passed out. When the EMTs arrived, the baby had no pulse and was dead. The EMTs found what seemed to be blood inside the left leg of the baby’s onesie. She had complained about pain in her leg and passed out after being taking out of a bath. The autopsy revealed abrasions or lacerations to her vaginal orifice. Shortly after, Derrick was arrested and in winter of 1998, he was indicted with first degree sex offense, felony child abuse, and first degree murder.
When the audit was released people were rightfully angry. Many of the DAs, defense attorneys, and other people in the justice system publicly spoke out against the SBI Crime Lab. AG Roy Cooper said, “The lab can not accept attitudes that are not open to the possibility that a mistake has been made. It can not ignore criticisms and suggestions from the outside.” Spoiler alert: it did. Some lab employees completely ignored the report. Also, Duane Deaver was not the only analyst who tested the spot on Greg Tayler’s truck. Deaver’s superior, Jed Taub, assisted with the analysis. Duane Deaver is talked about most because of “The Staircase” which had that video of him doing his “science”, but Jess says no one ever talks about the woman in the video. Suzi Barker had seven cases mentioned in the audit. Jed Taub retired in 2004 after being with the SBI for 30 years, and was working with the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office as a forensic investigator when the audit was happening in 2010. Taub claimed that they didn’t report the negative result of a confirmatory test because it’s misleading, and that the tests didn’t matter because they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t blood. He said everyone was making a big deal over nothing. He only reported negative tests if the first test was negative. Taub had nine cases mentioned in the audit but basically blamed any “misunderstandings” on attorneys. SBI Special Agent Jennifer Elwell who has been mentioned on previous episodes shared Taub’s viewpoint and said the audit was just “one person’s opinion”. Turns out, she was mentioned in the audit quite a bit.
Special Agent Jennifer Elwell and her superior, David Spittle, analyzed items from the scene of the Derrick Allen case for a presence of blood. Elwell was the only one who testified and was mentioned in the audit. The initial testing on the items showed a presence of blood but the confirmatory Takayama test did not, which she wrote down in her notes. When she explained the science at Derrick’s appeal she said you would be looking for a specific formation of crystals to occur. If they did not appear, you would say the test was negative or inconclusive. A negative test result only means the analyst was not able to see the crystal formation. Elwell did the Takayama test in Derrick’s case. She put the small sample of alleged blood and the Takayama reagent under the microscope and waited for the crystals to form. According to Marilyn Miller if the crystals do not fully form, that’s a negative result and if there’s enough of the sample left, a second test should be done. If the crystals still do not form, that is negative. Elwell said at the appeal that crystals didn’t form and that they “tried to form” but nothing happened. According to Miller, crystals can try to form but that is considered a negative result.
Kia Ward submitted to a polygraph test without the defense’s knowledge. She admitted that she had had sex with Derrick and considered him an “enemy.” Everything she said about him the investigators took as fact, just ignoring the fact she admitted she had a vendetta against him. On April 2nd 1998, the state decided to pursue the death penalty.
After the audit report was released prosecutors and defense attorneys were in shock and wanted to review all of their cases. Around 80 defendants out of these cases were still in prison at this time. Checking those 80 cases was considered a top priority by the Executive Director for Prisoner Legal Services, and defense attorneys were encouraged to go through the list of those names and see if any of their clients were on it.
Derrick Allen was facing the death penalty and was rightfully scared so in 1999 he agreed to enter Alford plea deal which basically just acknowledges that a person knows that prosecutors have damning evidence that would likely result in a guilty verdict at trial but doesn’t admit any guilt. This plea deal got him sentenced to 43 years in prison which completely sucks for an innocent person but is still better than dying. In 2004, he withdrew his Alford plea and was given a new trial since he had been in prison five years and was tired of being there over something he didn’t do.
The day after Greg Taylor was exonerated on February 18th 2010, Derrick was appointed a new lawyer named Lisa Williams who reviewed his case files and found things were missing like pages from the investigating agent’s report. This is a violation of NC’s Open File Law which was enacted in 2004 and a federal Brady v. Maryland law. Lisa Williams wrote a letter requesting the entire file, and through this discovery found out a bunch of F’d up shit. At this point everyone knew what had been happening in the SBI lab, including the judge in Derrick’s case, Orlando Hudson. Judge Hudson dismissed Derrick’s case “due to the prosecutors withholding critical information and flagrantly violating Derrick’s constitutional rights” and said that the prosecutors had caused such irreparable prejudice that he had no choice but to dismiss the case. Just like in the previous cases covered, the investigators refused to investigate other suspects because they believed Derrick was guilty. The DA, Tracy Cline, called Judge Hudson dismissing Derrick’s case “an extreme abuse of power” and issued a series of derogatory comments against the judge about that case and several others.
In September 2012, the state Court of Appeals unanimously decided there were no grounds for Judge Hudson’s dismissal and that he didn’t have adequate evidence to dismiss the case. His ruling was reversed and the case went back to Durham County Superior Court. There was apparently substantial independent blood evidence, which Priya says she doesn’t really understand because she could only find a reference to a paper towel found in the kitchen that contained blood and that what was thought to be blood on the onesie was not blood.
The next four years, Derrick was not in prison but found himself having to worry about whether he was going to be charged again or sent back to prison until October of 2016 when a Durham ADA filed records of the case being dismissed. The reason being that after significant investigation into the case witnesses either could not be located or refused to assist the prosecution.
In 2016, at 38 years old, Derrick had spent over half of his life either in prison or wondering if he was going to go back to prison. This miscarriage of justice affected not only him, but the baby’s mother, and all of their friends and family. Also, if he didn’t do it, whoever hurt the baby is still out there. When F’d Up interviewed Chris Mumma, the executive director of the NC Center on Actual Innocence, she told them that the problem with the system, is you expect the scales to be balanced but they aren’t balanced.
The audit of the SBI lab basically revealed that Deaver was telling the truth when he said he was following SBI policy for how he reported in Greg’s case. In 1997, it became written policy whereas prior to that it was unwritten and analysts just used their discretion. From 1986-2002, which was nearly the entire span of the audit, a guy named Mark Nelson was the Forensic Biology Section Chief at the SBI lab. He acknowledged after the audit that omitting confirmatory tests was bad practice. At section meetings reporting positive results was discussed and standardized but there was no discussion of reporting negative or inconclusive results. Two analysts who were interviewed by Chris Swecker for the report said that they had been told about the possibility of false positives but they ignored those warnings believing that a positive finding in the tests indicated blood because they had done testing on plant based materials that were known to cause false positives but hadn’t gotten a positive reaction. Swecker said that they were writing their reports to law enforcement and were trying not tp write any negative results. Swecker also wrote that there was anecdotal evidence that some analysts were not objective in their mindset
Eight analysts were mentioned in the audit report. Priya says that one of the things that made her bring the idea for this podcast to Jess is that Deaver was getting all of the heat for the way things had been mishandled but he wasn’t the only person doing crap. Only four of the analysts named were still working in the SBI lab when the audit was released and one was doing contract work for the agency. Priya says time had passed and “a couple of the agents had retired which rhymes with fired” such as Brenda Bissette. The agents who looked into the SBI lab found that Bissette had accounted for 24 of the cases 36 cases found in category three of their audit. The other analysts in category three were Deaver, with five cases, and an analyst named Lucy Milks who had two cases and left the SBI in 2006, but worked on contract as a chemist in the drug chemistry section. Also mentioned in the audit was Suzi Barker, who was mentioned earlier for being on the video from “The Staircase”, and a guy named Russell Hollie who had an actual background in science and had brought up a lot of the issues with the SBI lab before the audit occurred. He had one case listed in the audit report from 2001. Priya says it’s just her opinion but it may go more to the culture of the SBI lab and their process of reporting than to his science and Keith says it could have actually just been a mistake. As of 2011, he was still working with the SBI but it’s unclear where he is now. David Spittle, who was also mentioned earlier, left the SBI in 2001 had two cases mentioned in category three but was responsible for almost 90 cases out of the entire 230 cases. As Swecker also mentioned on the report, it’s possible that the cases on the list resulted in guilty pleas or the inability for the defense attorneys to have a fighting chance. Priya says this 100% came into play with Derrick Allen and came into play with a man named Daniel Green. F’d Up will dig into his case and, as always, more fucked up shit on next week’s episode.