Top State Forensic Analyst under Fire for Defending Disgraced NC Crime Lab

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The top forensics official at California's Department of Justice has come under attack for public statements defending controversial practices at a crime lab in North Carolina.

Jill Spriggs, chief of the DOJ's Bureau of Forensic Services, appeared before a panel of North Carolina legislators a few months ago to address their questions about oversight of the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab, where an FBI audit found more than 200 cases where analysts had withheld information favorable to defendants.

Spriggs, who was speaking in her capacity as president-elect of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), a professional association, including the San Francisco Police Department. She was quoted in the Raleigh News & Observer defending faulty forensic and record-keeping methods that led to the now-infamous conviction and 17-year imprisonment of North Carolina resident Gregory Taylor, who was declared innocent last year by a state judicial commission.

ASCLD's accreditation agency, ASCLD-LAB, has been criticized for failing to uncover the problems despite its own repeated inspections of the North Carolina crime lab.

Spriggs reportedly sought to justify a highly controversial practice at the lab -- agents' habit of writing that their examinations of evidence "revealed chemical indications of blood," even when final, confirmatory tests actually ruled out the presence of blood. (Testing for blood is done through a two-step process consisting of a preliminary test and a final test to confirm the result.)

"That is an accurate statement," Spriggs reportedly said. "A lot of times you got no results. It didn't mean it wasn't blood; it meant you didn't have enough sample, or maybe the sample was old. ...What else is red-brown that will give you a positive presumptive test for blood? There's nothing that I know."

Her testimony prompted a scathing letter to the editor to the News & Observer from Diane Savage, president of the group NC Attorneys for Science and Technology.

"Even SBI lab protocols, supposedly approved by ASCLD-LAB, state that the phenolphthalein presumptive test is considered to be highly reactive with plant peroxidases and can give positive false reactions to tomatoes, potatoes, horseradish and several other substances," Savage wrote. "The lack of expertise of the new leader of ASCLD, the trade association of directors of crime labs across the U.S., is disappointing but no longer surprising."

Amy Driver, a former Los Angeles Police Department forensic scientist who runs an industry blog, BulletPath, called Spriggs' statements "amazing" on her website.

Reached by SF Weekly, Spriggs said she was misquoted in the North Carolina newspaper.

"I can tell you a lot of the things that were reported by the News & Observer in North Carolina were taken out of context," she said. "A lot of what they reported is wrong."

She declined to further discuss her statements without authorization from the press office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, which did not respond to requests to speak further with Spriggs.

ASCLD recently re-accredited the troubled SFPD crime lab, despite documented problems including the theft of drug evidence by a lab worker, the destruction of records of a DNA sample switch in a homicide case, and misleading forensics reporting by the current head of the lab's DNA section.

Harris -- Spriggs' boss and the former San Francisco District Attorney -- also came under fire for her alleged role in concealing those problems.

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Lewis H Smith
Lewis H Smith

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Frederic Whitehurst
Frederic Whitehurst

Barry Fisher's comments should be addressed. If indeed the facts that he presents are true, and as far as I can see they are, then we should look again at the story that he criticizes. We should ask for the transcript of Jill Spriggs' testimony before the North Carolina legislators. We should ask why the auditing body for crime labs is called "ASCLD-LAB" and is in no way associated with ASCLD. We should ask why anyone would willingly and openly support withholding exculpatory information and ask further, after looking at Spriggs' testimony, if she really did that. We should look further into why ASCLD-LAB has audited crime labs throughout the US (those that volunteer to be audited) and yet so many problems continue to surface. Problems which have resulted in loss of life as well as loss of liberty of fellow citizens. We should ask how the forensic science community has failed to successfully address these issues now for decades. We should ask why, when individuals within the justice system raise these issues, they are at best, ignored for years as was Diane Savage. We should have these discussions without rancor or personal attacks. It is time for Social Scientists to enter this discussion because physical scientists don't seem to be able to understand, much less solve, these problems. I applaud Barry Fisher's wanting and presenting facts.

Barry Fisher
Barry Fisher

Sloppy fact gathering. Spriggs is president elect of ASCLD not president. ASCLD does not accredit crime labs. ASCLD/LAB, is a sister organization which is not run by ASCLD. ASCLD does not audit labs. ASCLD/LAB performs that function. ASCLD/LAB is a separate independent organization and Spriggs does not dictate it's policies. Your reporting lacks objectivity and smacks of being a hatchet job.

PeterJamison
PeterJamison

Dear Mr. Fisher,

Thank you for your comment. The above blog post has been edited to clarify Jill Spriggs' role as president-elect of ASCLD.

The actual degree of separation between the putatively distinct organizations, ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB, is something of an open question. ASCLD's website offers the following explanation:

"Several years ago, a laboratory accreditation board was created within ASCLD to meet the needs of the criminal justice system and eventually incorporated as a separate and distinct non-profit entity. To the confusion of many, its name continues to reflect its origins and is known as The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors / Laboratory Accreditation Board, or ASCLD/LAB..."

But questions persist. Amy Driver of the forensic-science blog BulletPath has reported that ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB -- as well as ASCLD's lobbying arm and for-profit consulting group -- operated out of the same physical office space:

http://bit.ly/dE97wD

Raleigh News & Observer reporters Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke have also raised questions about the true level of separation among the various organizations bearing the ASCLD imprimatur:

http://bit.ly/d5pXiw

Regards,Peter Jamison

PeterJamison
PeterJamison

Dear Mr. Fisher,

The blog post above has been edited to clarify Jill Spriggs' role as president-elect of ASCLD. While ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB are putatively separate organizations, the question of ASCLD/LAB's actual degree of independence from ASCLD -- and from ASCLD's for-profit consulting service -- is not settled.

I would invite you and other interested readers to take a look at the following report from the Raleigh News & Observer. Reporters Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke revealed, among other things, that ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB operated out of the same office, while using fake addresses for non-existent "suites" to differentiate themselves:

http://bit.ly/d5pXiw

Regards,Peter Jamison

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