Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ballistics lab shut because of errors

Outcome of Metro cases may be called into doubt By KATE HOWARD • Staff Writer Tennessean)• April 12, 2008 Allegations that a Metro ballistics examiner falsified reports in an attempt to cover up his errors spurred police to temporarily close the ballistics lab where they test evidence in gun crimes, and called into question the credibility of Metro's ballistics analysis. Michael Pyburn, a 30-year veteran of the department, retired early this month before he could be disciplined. Though Pyburn was doing his work, police said he routinely skipped the step of adding his findings to the ballistics database used by Metro and other jurisdictions across the country to solve gun crimes. With the closing and reassignment of two other examiners deemed to be underqualified, the department plans to get a second opinion on recent work that led to arrests, and to start over with a civilian staff. In the meantime, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation will add analysis of Metro's guns, bullets and casings to its workload for police departments throughout East and Middle Tennessee. The average turnaround time last month on that type of evidence was 12 weeks, the TBI said. "It is imperative that the police department and its law enforcement partners have confidence in ballistics testing and reports generated from our ballistics component," police spokesman Don Aaron said. "Due to the Pyburn situation, that confidence, both internally and externally, has understandably eroded." Aaron said the department was not aware of any cases in which ballistics evidence had played a major role in a conviction. Davidson County Public Defender Ross Alderman said the issue should bring about serious evaluation from prosecutors and defense attorneys on how this might impact current and old cases. A criminal case rarely hinges on the gun or bullet alone, Alderman said, but he still thinks it's important to revisit evidence that may have played a major role in a police investigation. "I think in any situation like this, the immediate assumption is that it calls into question everything the lab has ever done," Alderman said. "That may or may not be true." TBI double-checked Metro shut down operation of its ballistics lab April 1 after learning from TBI that Pyburn had incorrectly connected five bullets to the same gun. When TBI examined the evidence, it found that two of the five were fired from a gun of a different caliber, according to TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm. "He asked the TBI not to say anything about this, and he went back and created paper work to cover up the fact that his first report was wrong," Aaron said. According to a memo from Deputy Chief Steve Anderson, Pyburn probably would have been fired. His personnel record indicates this wasn't the first time Pyburn, 52, had been in trouble with the department. He was suspended for 15 days in 1992 after writing inaccurate reports and improperly securing evidence. Pyburn was leading a case in the vice unit involving fellow officers suspected of illegal gambling, and vital photos and other evidence were missing at the close of the case. A sergeant confronted Pyburn about wrong information in a report, and he later amended it to change the mistake. He also shared evidence — a recorded conversation — to an informant's attorney without permission, according to the disciplinary report. Shorter suspensions dating back to 1976 were for damage or loss to department property, not appearing in court and a discipline for writing obscene words across receipts he submitted to the General Sessions court clerk. Pyburn could not be reached for comment. Aaron said that two other ballistics examiners were not properly washing bullets before they were inspected, leading to questions about whether the examiners were following procedures. They were transferred Thursday to the warrants division. The department plans to restaff the lab with civilians in hopes they'll be more focused on the science of evidence analysis than on law enforcement. Training through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation can take up to two years. TBI investigators have agreed to use Metro's equipment periodically to keep it in use. Aaron said he could not put a time frame on how long the department will be waiting to reopen the ballistics component. "It's going to be done right, and if it takes two years, it'll take two years," he said.

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