What is in a State Crime Laboratory Lab Report?

Many attorneys have asked me what should be included in a lab report from the State Crime Lab. Often in District Court DWI cases or through discovery, defense attorneys receive only a 1-2 page report called a Lab Report. For each case that is analyzed by the State Crime Laboratory, the lab produces a Case Record in Forensic Advantage (FA), the lab’s electronic information management system. The Case Record contains many items, including the lab report, chain of custody information, analyst CV, and information about tests performed. Under N.C. Gen. Stat. 15A-903, the lab provides this Case Record to the prosecution for disclosure to the defendant through discovery. If attorneys do not receive complete lab reports, they should request the items described below through discovery. This information is also available on the IDS Forensic website.

How are reports accessed by the District Attorney’s Office?

When the lab has completed its analysis and finalized its report, an email is automatically sent to the District Attorney’s office and the law enforcement agency that requested the analysis, notifying them that the Case Record is available. These offices can access the Case Record using a web-based program called FA Web. There are legal assistants or victim-witness coordinators in each DA’s office who are trained to use FA Web. They can access the Case Records using the emailed link (which remains active for seven days after the email is sent), or they can search for the report within FA Web even after the email link has expired. Some ADAs and DAs may also be trained in using FA Web, but typically it is a legal assistant who accesses the FA Web and downloads the Case Records.

Many defense attorneys are surprised to learn that a full Case Record is produced by the lab and sent to the DA’s office for each case that is worked, including District Court cases. Depending on whether they have been trained in the use of FA Web, ADAs may or may not know that the lab provides complete Case Records for each case worked, but the legal assistant in their office who is trained to use FA Web can access these full reports.

How long has this system been in place?

FA was adopted by the lab in 2008 as the lab’s electronic information management system. Since 2011, the lab has been providing Case Records to DA’s offices through FA Web. Since June 2013, DA’s offices have had the option to download and print partial “Ad Hoc” lab reports instead of printing the full Case Record.

What is included in a Case Record Full Packet?

The “Case Record Full Packet” may be downloaded as one zip file or portions of the Case Record may be downloaded separately. The Table of Contents is the most important page for a defense attorney to review in order to determine if the complete packet has been provided through discovery. If items of evidence were analyzed in more than one section of the lab, each lab section will complete a separate Case Record for its analysis and Case Records will be numbered consecutively (for example, Record #1 may be from Trace Evidence, Record #2 may be from Forensic Biology and DNA, etc.) Some Case Records may not be needed once created, such as when an examination is redundant with another Case Record. These will be listed as “Terminated.”

The main PDF in the zip file Case Record Full Packet contains the Table of Contents. The Table of Contents will specify if it is a Case Record (Full), Ad Hoc or Officer. If an attorney sees on the Table of Contents that the packet is an Ad Hoc or Officer packet, the attorney will know that there were additional items provided by the lab that have not been provided to the defense. If the DA’s office downloads the Case Record Full Packet the entire packet will be paginated consecutively and state the total number of pages, such as Page 1 of 200. If only a partial Ad Hoc packet is downloaded, the portion that is downloaded will be paginated, such as Page 1 of 10.

The Case Record Full Packet will include the following items (though not necessarily in this order):

  • Table of Contents – lists all items included in the main PDF file of the “Case Record Full Packet” as well as additional items that are sent as separate files. Every packet (including partial Ad Hoc packets) that is downloaded from FA Web will have a Table of Contents. This Table of Contents has been annotated to describe its various parts. These links show sample Table of Contents for Digital Evidence (Audio Video and Computer), Drug Chemistry, Firearms, Toolmarks, Forensic Biology (Blood, DNA, and Semen) Latent Evidence (Footwear-Tire and Latent), Toxicology, and Trace Evidence (Arson,Explosives, Fiber, Glass, GSR, Hair, Paint, and Trace). Beneath each item listed in the Table of Contents will be an indented description of this item. Often the “description” just repeats the name of the document. Attorneys should know that indented description is not a separate or duplicate item, but is intended to describe the item listed above. The lab plans to remove the descriptions when it upgrades the FA Web program as they are mainly duplicative of the document name.
  • Lab Report – a 1-2 page document that states the analyst’s conclusions. It will not identify what test was performed or how the analyst reached her conclusions. This is the notarized document that is found in the court file in District Court DWI cases. Many attorneys think this is the only report that the lab produces, but it is just one part of the entire Case Record that the lab produces for each case.
  • Case Report – several pages that list the names of the analysts who performed the analysis and reviewed the case. If any problem is found when the case is reviewed by another analyst, the problem will be briefly described in this section in a written dialogue between the analysts.
  • Chain of Custody – shows the chain of custody of the item of evidence within the lab.
  • Request for Examination of Physical Evidence – a copy of the form that law enforcement submits to request that an item be analyzed by the lab.
  • Worksheets – as the analyst works, she records which test is performed and her observations, measurements, and results using an electronic form on her computer. The Lab Worksheets are printouts of these electronic forms. The Lab Worksheets are one place to look to see what tests were performed.
  • Quality Control/Quality Assurance and sample preparation documentation – this documentation will vary depending on the type of analysis completed, but many analyses will have documentation of calibration curves, positive and negative controls, instrument set-up, sample preparation, instrument results, etc. Attorneys can consult with Sarah Olson, their own expert, or the lab analyst for an explanation of these case-specific items.
  • Communication Log – includes details of case-related phone conversations, including communications from law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, if any such communications occurred. If communication has occurred by e-mail or memo, the e-mail or memo will be provided as part of the main PDF file in the Case Record Full Packet.
  • CV of Analyst(s)
  • Messages Report – these are messages that can be sent from external users to the State Crime Lab via the FA system, such as rush requests or stop work orders. Analysts can also send messages to each other through the FA system that will be recorded here.
  • Publish History and Packet History – if this is the first publication of the packet, it will be noted here. If this is a subsequent publication of the packet, any information on previous publications, including downloads by FA Web users, will be listed.

Several additional items also make up the Case Record Full Packet. These items are listed in the Table of Contents but are not paginated with the previous documents.

  • Prior Versions of Worksheets and Lab Reports – various versions of one Worksheet may be saved during analysis as the analyst progresses through her work. If an analyst has to go back and amend something in a completed Worksheet, the previous and new versions will be saved. If an analyst changes something in a Lab Report, the previous and new versions will be saved. These worksheets and reports are paginated separately from the Case Record Full Packet.
  • Worksheet Resources – a list of all instruments, equipment, chemicals, reagents, kits, and other standards used in the analysis. The document also contains the maintenance history for the equipment and instruments used. This document is paginated.
  • All other items that cannot be made into PDFs, including images and some data files – images may be printed by the DA’s office, but attorneys should request them on a disc for better image quality. Raw data files cannot be printed and require proprietary software to open. Currently raw data files are being provided only in cases where DNA analysis was performed. These files can be opened by an expert who has the appropriate software to read this data.

How do I know if I received all documents that the lab has produced?

There are a number of steps that defense attorneys can take to ensure that they are receiving compete discovery:

  1. Review the Table of Contents – Attorneys should look for the Table of Contents in the Case Record Full Packet and check to ensure that the type of Case Record that the DA’s office downloaded was Full (rather than Ad Hoc) and that all documents listed in the Table of Contents are provided.
  2. Check pagination – The FA Web system paginates everything that is downloaded. If, for example, only pages 4 and 5 of 200 are provided, the defense attorney will know that she doesn’t have a copy of everything that the DA’s office downloaded. However, if the DA’s office chooses to only download a portion of the packet (Ad Hoc packet) rather than the Case Record Full Packet, only those downloaded pages will be paginated. For example, if the Case Record Full Packet has 200 pages but the DA’s office only downloads the Lab Report which is 2 pages, those pages will be paginated, 1 and 2 of 2.
  3. Request Forensic Advantage notification emails from the DA’s office – Whenever the lab updates a Case Record that has already been sent to the DA’s office, FA will send an email notifying the DA’s office that there has been a change and specifying which portion of the record is changed. Defense attorneys should request these emails from the DA’s office through discovery. The updated Case Record may appear to be a duplicate of the original Case Record that was provided (and may be hundreds of pages long). These emails can help identify which document was changed.
  4. Meet with the ADA – Defense attorneys may request to meet with the ADA assigned to the case to view all of the documents available on FA Web to ensure that everything has been downloaded and shared through discovery.
  5. Consult with the lab – After reviewing the discovery and checking that the DA’s office has provided everything available in the FA Web program to the defense, defense attorneys may consider scheduling a pre-trial meeting with the lab analyst if questions remain about reports. State Crime Lab analysts are available to meet with defense attorneys prior to trial and will answer questions about the analysis that was performed and what reports/documents were produced in the case. Defense attorneys may contact Lab Legal Counsel Assistant Attorney General Joy Strickland if there are issues with lab discovery that cannot be resolved with the ADA.
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