State crime lab delays impact families seeking justice

Stancils waited more than five years for murder conviction

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Willie Stancil of Candor holds a photograph of her daughter

CANDOR, N.C. — The bodies of 28-year-old Davida Shauntel Stancil and Tyrone Clinton Marshall, 31, were found Mother’s Day weekend in 2011. Randy Steven Cagle was arrested for the crime almost immediately in what was described as a drug deal gone wrong.Davida, a mother of three, was buried less than a week after her death, the day after her middle child Jaynel’s 10th birthday.”Mother’s Day is different for us, for them. We don’t want to celebrate it,” Davida’s mother, Willie Stancil, said.It took five years, but parents Willie and Mike Stancil, and Davida’s three children — O’Neshia, Jaynel and Jaida — finally saw Cagle convicted of the crime July 11, 2016. That agonizing five-year wait is just one example of the personal impact of the North Carolina Department of Justice’s crime lab backlog.District 19B Chief Assistant District Attorney Andy Gregson was the prosecutor in the case and said one of the hardest parts of his job is telling victims’ families that there is no timetable for justice.”The first time you meet with the family, you explain that to them,” Gregson said. “You say, ‘Look, I’m not going to lie to you because I can’t promise you this case is going to be done in a year. I can’t promise you it’s going to be done in two years. I can’t promise you that, because we do not know when we’ll get this critical evidence back.'”Incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory made the crime lab a campaign issue against his challenger in the upcoming election, state Attorney General Roy Cooper. McCrory has accused Cooper — who has been attorney general since 2001 — of mismanaging the crime lab, while Cooper said he has turned around the much-maligned wing of the state Department of Justice.”I would say in the last year, yes, there has been an improvement,” Gregson said. “But it was horrendous for several years, more than several years.”A combination of factors seemingly caused the years-long issues, from crime lab staff turnover and budget constraints to new laws and guidelines.Gregson said prosecutors are aware of the immense caseload the crime lab is charged with, but also said discourse with the lab was essentially nonexistent when things were at their worst.”I think the frustration … is for a long time there just wasn’t a lot of communication with the prosecutors,” Gregson said. “It was just, ‘Hey, it’s just taking that long and that’s the way it is.'”There’s also the matter of 2009’s Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts court case, which saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule, 5-4, that crime lab analysts must present their findings in-person during trial as part of the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause.The ruling — which saw conservative and liberal Supreme Court justices scattered on each side — could put, as Justice Anthony Kennedy warned in his dissent, “a crushing burden” on the criminal justice system, and “guilty defenders will go free, on the most technical grounds.”Gregson said this was true of his office, where many open-and-shut drunk driving cases led to no conviction.”We had DWI cases that we could not prosecute [because of the wait for lab results] and the judge denied further continuance after 18 months or two years,” he said. “So we would dismiss it in hopes that we could get the tests back before the two years [statute of limitations]. And many times we didn’t. I don’t know how to square that. Those people got a gift.”Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam hoped to ease that burden somewhat with House Bill 357, which was passed last session and allows for written toxicology analysis instead of in-person testimony in district court criminal cases.”Mostly what they do is sit in the back of a courtroom waiting to be called and spend a lot of time on the road driving there,” Stam said of the analysts who are made to testify.That means less time in the lab working on the more than 50,000 cases the 120-plus analysts and couple dozen managers and supervisors get each year. Stam thinks the law, which went into effect Oct. 1, will further help the backlog at the state’s three labs located in Asheville, Greensboro and Raleigh.Gregson said the dignity and class Willie Stancil showed in patiently waiting for her daughter’s killer to be tried and convicted made a lasting impact on him.”She’s a remarkable woman,” Gregson said. “She’s a really special person, she really is. I have really grown to love her and her husband.”Stancil said she doesn’t know if she’ll ever truly find closure, having lost her only daughter, but that Davida’s three children “keep her busy” and she feels, despite the wait, the double-murder conviction and Cagle’s two life sentences represent justice.”If you could find out why it took five years, I would love to know,” she said.