The Lab is F'd Up
F'd Up · 54 minutes ·

The Lab is F'd Up

The Lab Is F'd Up
Written by Brandi Abbott.

This week’s episode starts with a quick reminder of where Priya, Jess and Keith left off last week. Duane Deaver had just revealed that he hadn’t reported tests confirming that the spot on Greg Taylor’s truck was not blood. Deaver said that the systems that were in place told him to write his reports the way he did and he was just following protocol. We’re reminded that in the NC SBI Crime Lab there was a practice in place wherein analysts could and would withhold secondary tests that confirmed a substance initially believed to be blood… was not blood. The Attorney General at that time, Roy Cooper, ordered an audit of the lab but that would take months to complete. During that time investigative journalists for the News & Observer had begun looking into the lab and published a 4 part series called “Agent’s Secrets”. The SBI director was quoted as saying, “if any questions are raised, at the time the SBI goes backs and checks. Our goal is to be accurate and find the truth. There is no hidden agenda.” She stated this in response to three other convictions in 2005 where the SBI Crime Lab had bungled evidence - five years before Greg Taylor was released from prison.

At this time, lawyers filed a complaint accusing the SBI of royally F’ing these three cases up. One of the lawyers who was a defense lawyer in one of the three capital cases, Diane Savage was the chairman of the Forensic Science Task Force in the criminal defense section of NC Academy of Trial Lawyers. She hoped that there would be a full investigation and that they would shut down the lab until they came up with better quality control.

One of the three aforementioned capital cases was a woman named Leslie Lincoln who lived in North Carolina and moved back in with her mother, Arlene, after she went through divorce. In 2002, she had finally started getting her life back on track. She had a job and a new place and everything was really looking up. On March 17th of 2002, Leslie went to do some errands and her mom and brother, Duffy, were at Arlene’s home watching basketball. Duffy left around 4:30. After her errands, Leslie stopped back in to see her mom. She left around 7:30 and stopped at Walmart for dog food on the way home, which was confirmed by several surveillance cameras.

The next night Duffy went to his mother’s house where he found the door unlocked and poor Arlene Lincoln’s body in her bedroom on the floor. She had been stabbed over 30 times.

At this point we know that the SBI is not unbiased. Priya gives us some background into the establishment of the SBI lab and tells us that the lab’s link to law enforcement plays heavily into all of the cases F’d Up will cover, but especially into the case of Leslie Lincoln.

Arlene led a pretty active life. When her neighbors noticed she hadn’t been in her yard, they thought it was weird and called Duffy. Duffy went to check on her, discovered her body and called 911. There were three footprints in the blood by her body and quite a bit of evidence left behind. The police took several things from her home for evidence. They later learned that her credit card was missing. They discovered there had been no forced entry and the killer had had an intense fight with Arlene, one of the stab wounds to her neck was fatal. The police didn’t check Leslie and Duffy for wounds until later that week but they fond none. Duffy’s wife, Sharla said she can remember the day when Leslie realized she was the prime suspect. Initially there had been an inexperienced investigator on the case but within a few days he was replaced by Detective Ricky Best. He had a reputation as a detective who saw the big picture. For some reason, he locked onto Leslie as a viable suspect and about six months after Arlene’s death, the Greenville PD arrested her. She thought she was going in for questioning - then the police chained her to a wall and told her she was under arrest. Soon after the DA filed notice that he would be seeking the death penalty. Leslie was jailed under no bond. She said that for the first three days, they put you in isolation to make sure you don’t hurt yourself and she cried for three days straight. Those three days turned into three years.

Priya takes over to tell us about how she and Jess have spoken with a few former SBI agents from the lab. One of the agents told her that he had been in law enforcement for over thirty years and “insinuated things would happen to her if she wasn’t on the up and up”. Jess mentions that it’s telling that he considers himself a law enforcement agent instead of a lab technician. Jess also remembers him saying that “he’s the one who wears the white hat”. This isn’t comforting as he’s supposed to be the guy looking at the evidence and pulling out facts objectively. In 2009, the National Academy of Science issued a report with recommendations, one of which was that forensic labs shouldn’t be under the control of prosecution or law enforcement. The paper series mentioned earlier, “Agents Secrets” tells us that the job of analysts should be to look at the evidence and only state the facts. We learn that analysts are given all evidence from a crime scene but are often asked to check out specifics by the police - which can create bias. If the results of tests aren’t clear it’s possible that if the analyst is looking for a good review or some other incentive, they could find results that favor law enforcement’s theories on a case. The analysts were encouraged to call law enforcement to dig a bit and see where they are on a case. They were supposed to log these calls but that didn’t always happen.

At the crime scene of Arlene Lincoln’s murder, a bloody handprint was found on the bedding. Detective Best kept this evidence for months and after Leslie’s arrest took it to the SBI lab to have it tested for DNA. Keith asks why he would have kept this evidence for that long and Priya tells us that she spoke with Leslie’s lawyer and he doesn’t know. No one knows. The
DNA test from this bloodstain on the bed and one from the couch matched Leslie’s DNA. Leslie’s attorney, Buddy Conner, who was a family friend, didn’t believe the test results. He pointed out that she was checked for wounds and had none that would have caused her to bleed to create the stain and that she had passed the polygraph. Conner called the analyst who did the testing, Brenda Bissette, and asked her to recheck her work. Despite talking to both her and her supervisor for over an hour, he was informed that they would not rerun the tests unless a judge or prosecutor demanded it. He took the matter to court to ask the judge to demand a retest at an independent lab. The DA, Clark Everett, didn’t object and actually asked the SBI to retest the evidence. In March of 2004, Bissette called Everett to let him know she made a mistake in her testing.

Law enforcement and prosecutors view the defense as their enemy and don’t want to disclose things to outsiders. Lab analysts are not considered outsiders. In 2007 (and still in use in 2010) there was a training manual for SBI analysts. The manual stated that a good reputation and calm demeanor also enhances an analysts conviction rate. The manual warned analysts that defense attorneys would often put words in an analyst’s mouth and stated that if there were any weaknesses in the case, the DA should be informed ahead of time to minimize the weaknesses impact. The SBI director, Robin Pendergraft claimed to have never seen the manual but when asked about these directions for analysts she said she found it “interesting”. Analysts were discouraged from speaking to defense attorneys about a case before trial and now are encouraged to speak with defense attorneys only after notifying the prosecutor so that they may choose whether or not to be present for the conversation. At this point the defense hire their own experts to double check evidence and so they can understand things but this has been met with resistance by the SBI. They have also resisted turning over material that the defense say is crucial to helping their clients. Included in the training manual is a memo for prosecutors by a district attorney, Michael Parker. In the memo, he warns against “defense whores.” Yes, that’s a quote. He goes on to promise that the SBI will vet the defense experts, finding background info on them for prosecutors. At this time a lawyer at the NC Department of Justice named John Waters who represented the SBI fought requests for information that weren’t specifically listed in the discovery law that ensures defense attorneys have access to investigative reports and resisted them being able to watch tests done in the SBI lab. In 2009, a policy was put into place banning any observers in the lab. This policy includes instances where every single bit of evidence is used in the test, which Priya tells us happened in one of the other three cases mentioned earlier. In May of 2009, Waters argued that the defense’s scientists could contaminate the lab and insisted that the lab isn’t equipped to have outside scientists observing their casework.

There was evidence that Arlene viciously fought her attacker. In her home there were three dollar bills on the couch which indicates that someone wasn’t there to rob her. There was a drawer placed on the floor near her dresser. Though the police took her purse they didn’t process it as evidence or check fingerprints before giving it back to Duffy. The bed next to Arlene’s body was covered in a bed sheet that contained significant amounts of blood. The footprints left in the blood were never measured by police. At 3:15 in the morning on March 18th, 2002 Arlene’s credit card was used at a gas station. Video was recovered from the store but the police either lost or destroyed the video. There was no evidence linked to Leslie except for the DNA test, which was wrong. At this point Leslie has been in jail about three years without bond, though Bissette had called the DA after a year and a half to inform him she had made a mistake. Bissette had mislabeled Leslie’s DNA and the blood found at the crime scene was Arlene’s. Priya tells us that “Agent’s Secrets” revealed that DNA is an exact science because everyone’s DNA belongs to only them but perfect samples can be hard to find at crime scenes. The evidence is often degraded or mixed with another persons and it’s hard for scientists to get a good look at all 16 unique identifiers that make up someone’s DNA profile. Crime labs have their own protocol for what construes a match between a suspect or mixed or partial sample. At the SBI’s lab, there are no minimum standards on how many of the identifiers are enough. According to an administrative order, seeing just one of these identifiers is enough. These standards are lower than other lab’s and it’s irresponsible to make conclusions with this little evidence. Most labs won’t consider anything a viable match unless three or four identifiers match between the suspects DNA profile and the sample from the crime scene. According to the SBI, it’s up to prosecutors to decide how much weight to give to the DNA evidence. Priya, Jess, and Keith joke that they’re scientists now, and honestly, I’m sure they’d do a much better job than these SBI analysts. The SBI removed Brenda Bissette from her lab duties and she retired in May of 2005. There’s a very good chance this was just human error and the SBI said they would review all 50 cases that Bissette had worked on since 2002 but wouldn’t redo the work unless requested by the prosecution or defense. However, they didn’t send out any notice to lawyers about this.

Leslie Lincoln, with no evidence, murder weapon, or witnesses is offered a deal by the prosecution that says that if she pleads guilty to manslaughter, she can walk out of jail. Leslie said she couldn’t do it and she didn’t kill her mother. She was released on a $500,000 bond and placed on house arrest because she was still the primary suspect in Best’s eyes. Leslie, having found out about the lab’s mistake, asked for the report on the tests and was provided with a 700 page report of additional discovery. This discovery didn’t include any information involving the incorrect DNA test or law enforcement procedures that led to it. In short, there’s no paper trail of the mistake made by the SBI. The prosecutor took the death penalty off of the table and the evidence was retested and the results showed no evidence linking Leslie to her mother’s murder. Detective Best, magically produced three jailhouse informants, however. Leslie remained under house arrest for two more years, making it five years since the whole ordeal began. In 2007, the case went to trial and Leslie was found not guilty. This doesn’t mean hard times were over, however. Her house was foreclosed upon and her brother had had to sell her horses. She was homeless for two years before she was able to find a job, was diagnosed with PTSD and still struggles to this day. Jess says that this is exactly her and Priya’s issue with all of this, that the systems are fucked up, yes, but more importantly how people’s lives are destroyed by it on an individual level. Priya says the SBI should have made a statement, saying that the mistake happened and how they would prevent it going forward.

In 2005, the Journal Newspaper requested public records about lab errors and the SBI did not disclose the error. When asked about it the SBI director, Robin Pendergraft said it must have been an oversight. Leslie says that even though she was acquitted, there is still someone out there who knows what happened and they need to come forward. She hired a private investigator who turned up a suspect for her mother’s murder but Greenville Police stopped investigating and maintain that they arrested the right person for the crime.

Next week on F’d Up we’re going to get a look at the progress of the audit, more info on the SBI lab, and another case.

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