Past crime lab problems roil governor campaign

Gov. Pat McCrory this week capped a central part of his campaign against Attorney General Roy Cooper with a political advertisement accusing his opponent of mishandling problems at the State Crime Lab and defending a “broken system.”

Released on Thursday, the digital-only ad features Greg Taylor, a Wake County man whose murder conviction put him in prison for 17 years. He was exonerated in 2010 after it was discovered a State Bureau of Investigation lab analyst withheld crucial evidence in his case.

The State Crime Lab was once plagued by shoddy work and a years-long backlog of evidence testing. Critics of the lab said it was biased toward the prosecution rather than providing independent scientific analysis. Those problems have fueled McCrory’s campaign through a series of TV ads and other messages criticizing Cooper this year.

Cooper wasn’t the attorney general when Taylor was convicted in 1993; he first took office as attorney general in 2001. The discovery of new evidence by Taylor’s post-conviction legal team led a three-judge panel to declare him innocent in February 2010, the first such exoneration by an independent innocence commission in the nation.

In March 2010, Cooper ordered a review of what happened in the Taylor case, and in January 2011 he fired the analyst five months after the review was completed.

When other problems were discovered at the lab, Cooper commissioned an independent review and took steps to improve the operation.

Cooper’s campaign spokesman, Ford Porter, accused McCrory of distorting the issues.

“Just days before Election Day, Governor McCrory is once again playing politics with our criminal justice system — releasing yet another false attack ad,” Porter said. “As Attorney General, Roy Cooper has been been committed to identifying problems and improving our justice system.”

Ricky Diaz, the governor’s campaign spokesman, says the Taylor case illustrates an important point.

“Greg’s story and countless others prove that Roy Cooper hasn’t been a change agent and wouldn’t be if elected governor,” Diaz said. “In fact, he's been a back-room politician protecting the broken state government system for 30 years — the same good ole boy system that Governor McCrory has been fighting to change since taking office.”

There have been several TV ads attacking Cooper on the crime lab, three paid for by the McCrory campaign and others by the Republican Governors Association. Cooper has aired ads in response, including a spot featuring the daughter of former state education board member Kathy Taft, who was murdered six years ago in Raleigh.

“State police would not have been able to catch her murderer if Roy Cooper hadn’t fixed the problems at the State Crime Lab that he discovered when he became attorney general,” Paige Fuqua says. She goes on to say McCrory is trying to capitalize on the pain of victims’ families. “Governor, please stop,” she says.

The McCrory campaign didn’t buy air time to put the Taylor ad on TV. It will appear online.

Fight every case

After serving 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Taylor places his blame just where the McCrory campaign has: on Cooper for not doing something more.

“The State Bureau of Investigation withheld evidence that would have set me free,” Taylor says in the video. “It was Attorney General Roy Cooper’s responsibility to fix the problems. But even after I was declared innocent, Cooper continued to defend the broken system that kept me and so many others behind bars.

“And Roy Cooper wants to be governor?”

Chris Mumma, director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, which formed in 2000 and works with law schools in the state to investigate claims of innocence by those convicted of crimes, says Cooper’s office resists working with post-conviction attorneys to help determine potential innocence cases.

“There has been a culture under his leadership of fight everything, fight every case, try to find a procedural bar, try to find some legal loophole to, in my mind, to prevent justice,” Mumma said in an interview earlier this year.

For instance, Mumma said when she asked the crime lab for a more legible copy of a lab report in a case last year — not Taylor’s — she was told the state Justice Department had instructed the lab not to provide any material without the permission of the district attorney in the case. Emails show the lead deputy attorney general in appellate cases said the department’s policy was not to provide any additional material, even in that instance.

Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the DOJ, said discovery issues are up to a judge to determine. Regarding Mumma’s complaint that the office is too aggressive in resisting efforts to uncover wrongful convictions, Talley said: “By law the Attorney General’s Office appellate lawyers represent the state in criminal matters.”

Mumma, a registered Republican who in 2004 ran for a state Senate seat, represented Taylor in his wrongful conviction case. Asked Friday if she encouraged Taylor to make the video ad, she replied by email, “Greg is very much his own person.”

Taylor declined to discuss the digital ad.

Having it both ways

Former state Rep. Rick Glazier says Cooper’s critics are trying to have it both ways.

“I find it remarkable, actually, in watching this unfold in the political commercials,” Glazer said. “One set is attacking the attorney general for not doing enough to help law enforcement, and this other set is now saying he didn’t pursue actively enough helping the defense and is too in bed with law enforcement.”

Glazier was a central player in legislation on wrongful convictions and reforming the crime lab until he resigned last year. The Fayetteville Democrat now runs the liberal N.C. Justice Center.

Cooper was instrumental in securing passage of the innocence commission bill, Glazier said, and took extraordinary efforts to improve the crime lab. “I think the attorney general deserves, actually, a lot of credit,” Glazier said.

Before the bill passed creating the Innocence Inquiry Commission, Cooper voted as part of a separate group against creating the commission.

Cooper says he cleared up a backlog of 5,000 tests for DNA evidence in rape cases that, until 2004, created such a logjam that no new requests were being accepted. It currently takes about 7 1/2 months to test new evidence for all crimes, although it can be expedited if police or prosecutors ask.

Delays in testing in recent years, Glazier said, are directly due to a lack of funding from the General Assembly to improve pay of scientists and forensic technicians, who were training on the job in North Carolina and then taking higher-paying jobs in neighboring states.

Glazier says Republicans choked off the funding once they took office in 2011, despite repeated requests from the crime lab director, and didn’t come through with needed money until last year. He contends it wasn’t about saving money.

“Frankly, the refusal to do it from 2011 on has everything to do with the lab being under the attorney general and this being a political setup for the governor’s race,” Glazier said. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that the lack of funding was absolutely political. No question, whatsovever.”

Problems led to settlements

Taylor’s case was just one example of problems in the state Department of Justice. He received a $4.6 million settlement from the SBI’s insurers in 2013. Also in 2013, the state and its ensurers agreed to pay $7.85 million to Floyd Brown, a mentally disabled man imprisoned for 14 years on what a judge determined to be a false confession.

In 2009, the SBI and its insurers paid $3.9 million to Alan Gell, a former death row inmate who spent nine years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

The prosecutions in those cases — like most of the lab’s failings — occurred before Cooper became attorney general in 2001.

Cooper isn’t the only state authority to clash with defense and post-conviction attorneys. N.C. Prisoner Legal Services has been waiting for 20 months to meet with McCrory in its application for a pardon of innocence for Horace Shelton, who was wrongfully convicted of forging three checks in Buncombe County and spent four years in prison before a judge vacated his conviction and the charges were permanently dismissed.

His attorney, Lauren E. Miller, submitted an application for pardon in August 2014. The governor’s staff met with Shelton’s attorneys in February 2015, Miller said, but have not been contacted for a formal interview with the governor.

McCrory has issued pardons of innocence for four men during his first term.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO