Testimony of SBI agent highlights first week of Tamara Bean trial

by Keith Barber

David Botchin, the defense attorney for Tamara Jill Bean, won his motion to compel SBI agent Karen Winningham to amend her report on DNA test results taken from evidence found at the crime scene in the investigation of the 2008 killing of Randy Wayne Charles. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Karen M. Winningham, a forensic scientist and State Bureau of Investigation agent, took the stand during the third day of testimony in the trial of Tamara Jill Bean at the Randolph County Courthouse in Asheboro. Bean is on trial for first-degree murder in the death of Randy Wayne Charles.

Winningham said she performed DNA analysis on evidence obtained from the crime scene on Sept. 30, 2008, the night of Charles’s death. After obtaining several items of evidence Winningham attempted to extract DNA profiles from a Remington 870 Express 20-gauge shotgun, five shotgun shells, a bloodstain from Randy Wayne Charles, and cheek swabs taken from Tamara Bean. Winningham said she could only obtain a partial DNA profile from one of the shotgun shells. In an SBI laboratory report dated May 7, 2009, Winningham concluded, “The partial DNA profile obtained from the swabbing from shotgun shell (Item 6) DID NOT MATCH the DNA profile obtained from [Tamara] Bean. No conclusion can be rendered as to the contribution of the DNA profile from [Randy] Charles to the partial profile.”

A copy of Winningham’s May 2009 report reveals the document has the word “Canceled” stamped on it. A second report issued by Winningham in June 2009 comes to a different conclusion regarding the partial DNA profile extracted from the shotgun shell.

“A partial DNA profile obtained from the swabbing from shotgun shell (Item 6). No conclusion can be rendered as to the contribution of the DNA profiles from T. Bean and R.

Charles to the partial profile,” the report states.

The conflicting reports led Bean’s defense attorney, David Botchin, to file a motion against the state for alleged violations of Brady v. Maryland earlier this month. On Aug. 22, Superior Court Judge Vance Bradford Long agreed to grant Bean the third prayer in her motion, which compelled Winningham to prepare a new laboratory report that “clearly states that the comparison of the partial profile from SBI Item No. 6 with the DNA of Ms. Bean finds a ‘non-match’ and that her DNA is excluded. That the comparison of Mr. Charles’ DNA to the partial profile found on SBI Item No. 6 does not rule Mr. Charles out since he does possess the allele found in the partial profile,” according to court records.

On Aug. 25, Agent Winningham produced a third report with an amended conclusion.

“Examination of the swabbing from the one 20 [gauge] live round shotgun shell (Item 6) revealed the presence of one allele,” the report states. “Due to the limited amount of information obtained from this profile, it is unsuitable for upload into [a national DNA database] and can only be used for exclusionary purposes.”

“The DNA profile obtained from T. Bean was excluded as a contributor,” the report reads. “No conclusion can be rendered as to the contribution of the DNA profile from TR Charles.”

The revelation is significant because Randolph County Assistant District Attorney Kingsley Dozier has argued that Bean shot and killed Randy Charles in a premeditated fashion before staging the crime scene to make it look like an act of self-defense.

During the voir dire portion of Winningham’s testimony, Dozier emphasized that the shotgun shell yielded a single DNA marker out of a possible 16 markers. On crossexamination, Botchin hammered the point that the single allele was sufficient to show that there was no DNA from Tamara Bean on the shotgun shell, but Winningham’s June 2009 report did not state that Bean was excluded from being a contributor. He pointed out that Winningham’s job is to take in physical evidence and analyze it, not to speculate what happened at a crime scene.

Botchin presented Winningham with a copy of the SBI Lab Manual in effect during the time of her DNA analysis in the Bean case and read a portion regarding exclusionary results.

“It is scientifically acceptable for a match or non-match to be determined for a case when one or more of the [alleles] yield inconclusive results,” the SBI manual states. “A match will be based only on [alleles] which yield conclusive results. An exclusion will be determined if only one [allele] probed produces exclusionary results.”

Winningham defended her amended report she filed in June 2009, stating that with insufficient DNA, you can call a DNA sample an incomplete profile. And at the time of her report, there was significant debate in the SBI lab about the policy regarding exclusionary results, Winningham added.

Botchin asked Winningham if she knew the SBI manual in force at the time of her reports clearly tasked agents with helping law enforcement make their case.

“I worked the cases I was assigned,” she replied.

During cross-examination, Botchin touched on an ombudsman report issued earlier this month by acting SBI Lab Director Joseph R. John, which states that it’s the responsibility of the defense attorneys and district attorneys in criminal cases to determine if recent changes to SBI Lab policy could yield different conclusions by eliciting testimony from the SBI agent rather than the SBI Lab going back and amending its own reports. Winningham said she was not aware of the ombudsman’s report.

NC Attorney General Roy Cooper recently defended a number of reforms at the SBI Laboratory, after revelations about significant problems at the bureau came to light last year. Cooper replaced former lab director Robin Pendergraft, whose leadership came under fire after the exoneration of Greg Taylor, a Wake County man wrongfully convicted of murder. In the wake of the Greg Taylor case, Cooper initiated an independent review looking at past serology cases and lab practices dating back to the late 1980s. Cooper stated that SBI lab experts have used DNA to eliminate more than 100 potential suspects as the source of DNA from evidence tested. Among the many reforms touted by Cooper are two independent audits of the lab’s DNA unit. Cooper stated the lab was found to meet the highest national standards.

“Quality work by the crime lab is critical to solving crimes and ensuring justice for victims and suspects,” Cooper said in a press release. “I expect the SBI to keep pursuing the highest standards and the latest science.”

The first week of testimony in the Tamara Bean case featured a number of friends of both the victim and accused testifying about the volatility of their relationship. Sheriff’s deputies, EMS workers and first responders also testified about Bean’s actions and demeanor on the night of Charles’ death.

In his opening statement, Botchin said the SBI Lab confirmed that Charles had gunpowder residue on his fingers. Botchin said crime scene photographs reveal that a Remington shotgun was lying 18 inches from Charles’ body. Interspersed around his body and under his body were shotgun shells. Botchin noted that the shotgun was not loaded but the trigger lock was off and the safety was off.

On the second day of testimony, the state then called Dr. Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft, a forensic pathologist and former associate chief medical examiner for the state of North Carolina. Gaffney-Kraft said she examined the body of Randy Charles in October 2008 and found three separate gunshot wounds. Gaffney-Kraft said she retrieved a bullet from the body of Charles. Dozier asked about the trajectory of one of the gunshot wounds, and if it would be consistent with the victim being in a sitting position. Gaffney-Kraft answered in the affirmative.

On cross-examination, Botchin asked Gaffney-Kraft if her training in forensic pathology would allow her to determine what took place at the crime scene and if selfdefense could be ruled out.

“I cannot rule out self-defense,” she said.