RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – This year’s bitterly contested North Carolina gubernatorial election has an unusual focus: the state’s crime lab.
Gov. Pat McCrory and his challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, have both featured the lab prominently in their campaign ads.
“Attorney General Roy Cooper is in charge of our State Crime Lab. They can still take as long as two years to process rape kits,” an ad for McCrory, a Republican, states.
“My mother was murdered. Her name was Kathy Taft. Police wouldn’t have been able to catch her murderer if Roy Cooper hadn’t fixed the problems at the State Crime Lab,” an ad for Cooper, a Democrat, said.
The ads are emotionally charged and powerful, and they contradict one another.
The North Carolina State Crime Laboratory provides DNA analysis, blood testing, and other evidence analysis for investigators. The scientists working at the lab often provide expert testimony in criminal cases.
Until recently, the lab was a part of the State Bureau of Investigation.
In 2010, serious problems at the lab came to light. An SBI agent testified the crime lab had a policy of excluding some blood test results from reports given to defense attorneys.
Cooper ordered an independent review, which found lab employees misrepresented or left out blood evidence in about 200 criminal cases between 1987 and 2003.
Cooper reassigned the director of the SBI and removed the director of the crime lab. According to Cooper’s campaign, he also obtained funds to hire more lab analysts.
The ads conflict on whether Cooper handled the issue well and whether the lab works well now.
“We cleared the backlog. We also solved over 2,000 crimes and put killers and rapists in prison from cold cases,” Cooper said in the ad.
“When prosecutors have had to dismiss cases because it takes too long to test evidence… Fixed Roy??” an ad for McCrory asks.
Experts say the work of the crime lab has important real-world consequences.
“With the stakes being as high as they are, especially in certain cases like murder cases or rape cases, that would result in either imprisonment for life or the death penalty, that confidence level has to get as close to 100 percent, as close as you can possibly get,” Karl Knudsen, a Raleigh attorney said.
Knudsen was a Wake County prosecutor; he’s now a defense attorney. He’s worked with the state lab in both capacities for the last 27 years.
“There’s been a vast improvement in the length in time it takes to do certain tests,” Knudsen said.
According to the latest report, turnaround time at the crime lab has been reduced by an average of 150 days.
CBS North Carolina dug deeper to give you a breakdown of the numbers. There are three crime lab facilities in the our state — Triad Regional in Greensboro, Western Regional in Asheville and the largest lab, located in Raleigh.
During fiscal year 2014-2015, Raleigh had more than 40,000 requests for analysis of criminal cases. The Triad Regional had just over 4,000 requests and Western Regional had close to 5,000. The combined labs completed nearly 55,000 requests in the same year, a figure that includes a number of past cases.
“There was a time when, for example, DNA analysis could take 18 months to almost two years depending on the type of analysis that was being done,” Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.
Now, he said, it takes about six months.
“And we had blood tests, mostly in DWI cases, that could take as much as 18 months,” Woodall said.
Woodall said the wait time is also about six months now.
He blames lack of funding. The lab needs money for training and certifying scientists. Woodall told us there’s also been a problem retaining staff. Private labs pay more.
“We all want to move cases along faster when we can, but at the same time to present to a jury you always want to have all the evidence you can have,” Woodall said.