Crime Lab Scandals the Focus of New DOJ Plan

December 8, 2015
by Katie Worth Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

A member of the forensic section of the French gendarmerie (Cellule d'Identification Criminelle, CIC) uses a UV lamp as he looks for evidence on a garment in a laboratory of the gendarmerie in Beauvais on November 21, 2013. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The equipment in the St. Paul Police crime lab was filthy. Technicians accidentally contaminated some samples, and made fundamental mistakes while testing others. In one case, a Post-it note on a case file indicated that someone not employed by the lab had opened drug evidence and weighed it. In another, a technician used Wikipedia as a “technical reference.”

These were among the findings of two independent reviews of the St. Paul Police crime lab — findings that shocked Minnesota authorities and shut down the facility for six months in 2013. That summer, state public defenders identified 1,700 drug cases that could qualify for “post-conviction relief” because evidence brought to the lab might have been mishandled or misinterpreted.

What happened in St. Paul, however, is just one of dozens of crime lab scandals that have erupted around the United States over the course of the last decade, scandals that have required thousands of cases to be either reviewed, reversed or retried. 

The Department of Justice on Monday announced a plan to address the problem, saying it will begin requiring its prosecutors to only use evidence that is processed by accredited labs. Right now, accreditation is voluntary for crime labs in most states, which means many lack any outside oversight. In the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2009 census of publicly-funded crime labs, 17 percent were unaccredited. Rates at private labs are believed to be far lower. For example, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors — Laboratory Accreditation Board, a primary forensics accreditor in America, for example, reports it has accredited 356 publicly-funded labs, but just 26 of the country’s hundreds of private labs.

The new policy, announced by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates at a meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Sciences, is unlikely to precipitate any immediate or universal overhaul of the nation’s crime labs. It will only directly affect labs contracted by the DOJ that aren’t already accredited — and it will only begin doing so in 2020. Furthermore, the new policy seemingly has a built-in loophole: Prosecutors are required to use accredited labs “when practicable,” a phrase Yates told the commission was not meant to be used loosely, but only when using those labs would cause great delay or excessive cost.

Nonetheless, the announcement was celebrated by commission members, who in April overwhelmingly voted in favor of universal accreditation. The commission was created in 2013 with a mandate to advise the DOJ on how to improve forensic sciences. Monday’s announcement marked the first time the department has turned that advice into policy.

“I think it’s huge. It shows a commitment to actually improving forensic sciences,” said commission vice chairman Nelson Santos. “A large percentage of large labs are already accredited — it’s really the smaller labs we’re trying to get.”

But other commission members said that the policy doesn’t reach far enough. To prevent lab scandals from happening, accreditation has to do more than simply become universal — it must also become rigorous, said commission member Paul Giannelli, a law professor and evidence and procedure expert at Case Western Reserve University.

Crime labs are accredited by private entities, often a nonprofit associated with a professional forensics association. Each group varies in its standards, but most require labs to maintain tested and calibrated equipment; put in place standard operating procedures, including for the reporting of errors; and establish quality controls. But many of these agencies have been criticized for lacking rigorous standards and showing little muscle when problems occur. For instance, Giannelli said, some labs are able to choose for themselves the cases their reviewers see, rather than having those cases selected at random.

“What’s the chance you’ll give them your best-ever casework? It’s high. That’s what I would do,” Giannelli said.

Santos said the process has improved considerably in recent years, but conceded it still has holes.

“Is accreditation a panacea? No it isn’t. It’s a step forward,” Santos said.

Nor does accreditation solve many other common problems that crop up in labs, from error-prone or undertrained technicians to unscientific conclusions. The sensitivity and accuracy of DNA science, which began being used in courts in the late 1980s, has thrown into doubt the accuracy of many other forensic disciplines that previously commanded confidence in courts, from arson investigation to hair analysis to bite mark analysis. But in recent years, even DNA forensics have come into question. Such problems cannot be addressed by accreditation alone.

Still, commission member Cecelia Crouse, director of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory in Florida, argued that even if it’s imperfect, accreditation can truly help to transform labs. Her lab has been accredited since 1992.

“I think it’s made our lab credible — not just to prosecutors and defense attorneys and courts, but to the staff themselves,” she said.

That was the hope of Minnesota’s leaders in 2014 when they became one of a handful of states to require all forensics labs to become accredited. The St. Paul Police lab itself finally did so later that year, a point of pride for city officials in the wake of the St. Paul scandal.

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