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.
Follow us on Twitter at @SFWeekly and @TheSnitchSF