An audit of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s (SLED) crime has revealed flawed examinations of gunshot residue samples over a period of a year and a half. The errors were found in 34 shooting cases in 13 different judicial districts and include samples tested in police officer Michael Slager’s North Charleston murder of unarmed black man Walter Scott.
Elsewhere, attorneys are scrambling to determine whether convictions were influenced by false testimony from the analyst. They’re filing motions to delay trials and asking judges to toss out evidence against potential murderers and attempted killers.
As a man accused of trying to shoot a Richland County deputy was set to be tried last month, attorneys in Columbia became some of the first officials outside SLED to learn about the problem. That trial was delayed, and prosecutors are ordering transcripts of two others that already prompted murder convictions.
Although not on the massive scale of the Annie Dookhan fiasco in Massachusetts, South Carolina has had its share of questions about the competence of SLED agents and the state’s crime labs. A SLED agent was fired in 2014 for fabricating evidence against a defendant in a child death investigation where she had doctored a report to insert an alleged confession by the defendant and then lied to investigators about what she had done.
In a separate incident in 2014, the Columbia Police Department’s crime lab was forced to close following an audit that found inconsistencies and questionable lab practices by its chemist Brenda Frazier:
While the lab is shut down, Columbia police will submit their drug evidence to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Solicitor Dan Johnson said.
“The solicitor’s office is currently in the process of conducting a case-by-case audit of all City of Columbia drug cases analyzed by Frazier in order to determine the best course of action to ensure fair and ethical prosecution and dispositions which are based on sound evidence and grounded in accepted scientific methodology,” Johnson said.
A spokesperson for the Columbia Police Department said the department is committed to the continued collaboration with SLED, RCSD, and the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office on this matter, and in the interest of justice.
The drug lab remains shut down and it is unknown how long it will remain offline.
Frazier was hired at the Columbia police department after the Richland County Sheriff’s Office had informed them that she was not qualified for the job. Her incompetence may never have come to the public’s attention but for defense lawyer Victor Li’s decision to have an independent analyst double check the weight of a drug sample that had been seized from his client and initially weighed by Frazier. Li’s client was charged with trafficking in cocaine based solely on the weight of the drugs.
“We weighed the cocaine, and it came out to be eight grams or something like that,” Li said. “That meant Jones should have been charged with possession with intent to distribute – meaning he was eligible for probation.”
At that point, Li said, “Frazier started questioning my expert about his equipment, his calibration and his methodology of weighing the drugs. We said, ‘Fine – we can go back to the city police department and weigh the drugs there, too.’”
At the city’s drug lab, Li and Bennett watched as Frazier weighed the cocaine. They were joined by another assistant prosecutor, Curtis Dayson, who took photos.
“The weight turned out to be exactly what Dr. Bennett said it was – eight grams or so,” Li said.
Crime labs are not infallible. Individual chemists sometimes make mistakes, and sometimes they commit misconduct. Entire labs may be unreliable due to lack of supervision and compliance with best practices. In either case, it is up to defense lawyers to challenge government analysts and crime labs and to independently test evidence in each client’s case. Without independent oversight by independent defense experts, some of the issues that we have seen in state-run crime labs may never have come to light.