After 17 years in prison, the past three have been dramatic for Greg Taylor. A three-judge panel declared him innocent of a 1991 homicide, and his case spurred a scathing audit of practices at the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab. The governor pardoned him, and he recently received a $4.625 million settlement from the SBI and its insurers.
Despite these numerous public acknowledgments of Taylor’s innocence and official wrongdoing, the SBI agents responsible for the case testified this year that they’ve done nothing wrong.
At the heart of the case against Taylor was a stain on his SUV that investigators believed to be blood. A prosecutor billed it as solid proof he had killed a Southeast Raleigh woman.
In 2010, 17 years later, Taylor learned that SBI analyst Duane Deaver performed specific blood tests that suggested the stain wasn’t blood, but made no mention of it in his report to prosecutors.
Ralph Keaton, the assistant SBI lab director at the time, said under oath in May that Deaver didn’t have to report the negative test results. Defendants are constitutionally entitled to exculpatory evidence, which is anything that could suggest their innocence. Keaton insists those negative blood tests aren’t information Taylor had a right to know.
“I do not believe so because I do not believe it’s exculpatory information,” Keaton said in a deposition. “I don’t think it proves anything.”
Taylor sued the SBI agents in 2011 over his wrongful conviction. Before the settlement, the lawsuit generated depositions and documents that reveal a number of other former SBI officials share Keaton’s view. They defended their work, even as Attorney General Roy Cooper and SBI leaders disavowed the former practices. Even SBI-hired experts called on to defend the lab’s work in the Taylor case say they would have worded their reports differently.
DNA tests performed in 2007, prior to Taylor’s innocence hearing, showed the stain was not blood. Still, the lead prosecutor in the case, questioned in May as part of Taylor’s lawsuit, continued to say that the stain on Taylor’s truck was blood.
They defended Deaver’s practices by saying other laboratories and analysts did it the same way in the late 1980s and 1990s. But Taylor’s attorneys found that laboratory policies at several labs around that time – including that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – would have required disclosure of the negative tests.
Doubting a new test
The jury that sent Taylor to prison in 1993 had been told one thing was for sure: There was blood on the fender of Taylor’s SUV.
Taylor had abandoned his SUV in an isolated area in Southeast Raleigh after a drug-fueled bender; the next morning, police discovered the battered body of Jacquetta Thomas nearby. It seemed an obvious conclusion: The owner of the vehicle must have been involved with the killing.
The stain was the only physical evidence connecting Taylor to the crime.
Deaver ran a preliminary test that indicated two samples of the stain could be blood. A second, more specific test to confirm the presence of blood, known as a Takayama test, was negative on both samples. A third test to determine whether the substance was of human origin came up negative for one of the samples; the other wasn’t tested. In his official report, Deaver wrote that the samples gave “chemical indications for the presence of blood.” He reported nothing about the other tests.
Deaver’s explanation of his actions has shifted several times.
Testifying in February 2010 before the three judges who freed Taylor, Deaver said his bosses and lab policy dictated that he only report the positive results. There was no such lab policy at the time.
When interviewed this year as part of Taylor’s civil lawsuit, Deaver said he didn’t believe the results of the 2007 DNA test performed by LabCorp – and he challenged their work. A LabCorp DNA analysis had concluded that the stain from the SUV was not blood.
Deaver said he believed that his lab testing in 1991 had consumed all of the sample and therefore LabCorp’s analyst had no way to determine the stain wasn’t blood.
Based on his memories of the samples, Deaver said “that would be scientifically incorrect for her to test something that didn’t exist and say there’s no blood present because that would be wrong.”
The SBI fired Deaver in 2011. He has appealed his termination. Since then, he moved to Texas and works as a manager in a hospital’s environmental services division.
Standing behind Deaver
Joseph “Jed” Taub was Deaver’s colleague in the lab in 1991 and reviewed Deaver’s report. Interviewed under oath earlier this year, Taub said the report was complete and said that Deaver was under no obligation to report the negative test result to Taylor and his lawyers.
Taub, retired from the SBI, and other former SBI agents argued that the confirmatory Takayama test was prone to false negatives and didn’t need to be reported.
“The fact that, for instance, a Takayama was negative is not added information,” Taub said. “It’s merely the lack of further information.”
Robert Gaensslen was one of the experts hired to defend the SBI agents. Widely acknowledged by other forensic scientists as the foremost expert on forensic blood testing, Gaensslen has often said that the confirmatory Takayama test has a high rate of false negatives.
When deposed, Gaensslen said his experience with false Takayama negatives occurred in the classroom with novice students, and doubted it happened often in work performed by trained scientists.
“Where the high percentage of failures I was talking about used to come up was when we would teach the test,” Gaensslen said. “These were students obviously. This wasn’t casework but when we were having a lot of people try to do the test all at the same time. It’s a finicky test.”
Gaensslen testified that the presumptive test that Deaver reported is also prone to false positives: malt and vegetable extracts, metals such as iron or lead, and vegetables such as turnips and tomatoes can give false positives.
Mark Nelson, a biochemist in charge of the SBI’s blood testing at the time, defended Deaver’s report: “You can only report the results of positive tests.” He defended the “revealed chemical indications of blood” language used in Deaver’s report.
“I think it’s intuitively obvious to the most casual observers that ‘indications of blood’ does not mean it’s blood,” Nelson testified in his deposition.
In 2001, though, Nelson issued a policy at the SBI on what words to use when faced with a negative Takayama test: “Further testing failed to confirm the presence of blood.” Nelson testified that he changed the policy to cut down on calls from police and prosecutors. After seeing the reports mentioning “indications of blood,” they would ask whether more tests had been done.
Nelson now works for the U.S. Department of Justice, where he administers grants for DNA testing in government laboratories.
In the past three years, Taylor has tried to make up for the 17 he lost. He has traveled to beaches and mountains and spent time spoiling his two grandsons. Taylor visits with his aging parents, who fought to free their son.
He’s taught himself how to use all the gadgets and gizmos invented during the time he spent removed from society. Recently, he landed a job as a programmer with a software company.
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