Tainting Evidence : Behind the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab
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Elizabeth A. Johnson, a former director of the DNA laboratory at the Harris County medical examiner's office in Houston, said the task would be daunting. Johnson said. There are many more horror stories in most every state. In the face of this national scandal, two elected officials have distinguished themselves at the federal level: senators John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy a former prosecutor , cosponsors of forensic reform legislation that offers significant improvements.
Tainting Evidence: Behind the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab.
In short, their bill would strengthen federal oversight of crime labs, invest in research into best practices, and provide a training and certification regime. But their bill doesn't go far enough, especially given the federal government's own problems with shoddy forensic science. The most compelling reform agenda that I've come across was summarized seven years ago by Radley Balko, an investigative journalist with significant experience unmasking shoddy crime-scene analysis , and Roger Koppl, director of the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
They focused on a huge conflict of interest at the core of the current system—the fact that forensic lab analysts often work for the police and prosecutors:.
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One major barrier to improving forensic evidence in criminal trials is that in most jurisdictions, the state has a monopoly on experts. Crime lab analysts and medical examiners and to a lesser extent DNA technicians typically work for the government and are generally seen as part of the prosecution's "team," much like the police and investigators.
Yes, science is science, and it would be nice to believe that scientists will always get at the truth no matter whom they report to. But studies have consistently shown that even conscientious scientists can be affected by cognitive bias. A scientist whose job performance is evaluated by a senior official in the district attorney or state attorney general's office may feel subtle pressure to return results that produce convictions. In cases in which district attorneys' offices contract work out to private labs, the labs may feel pressure—even if it's not explicit though sometimes it is —to produce favorable results in order to continue the relationship.
Indeed, according to Business Insider , "In many jurisdictions, crime labs receive money for each conviction they contribute to, according to a study in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics. Five specific reforms that Balko and Koppl urge are as follows :. Forensic counsel for the indigent. In many jurisdictions, indigent defendants aren't given access to their own forensic experts. As a result, the only expert witnesses are often testifying for the prosecution This undermines the whole adversarial basis of our criminal-justice system. Indigent defendants should be given vouchers to hire their own experts, who can review the forensic analysis and conclusions of each prosecution expert.
Expert independence. Crime labs, DNA labs, and medical examiners shouldn't serve under the same bureaucracy as district attorneys and police agencies. If these experts must work for the government, they should report to an independent state agency, if not the courts themselves.
There should be a wall of separation between analysis and interpretation When the same expert performs both the analysis and interpretation, defense experts are often at a disadvantage, having to rely on the notes and photos of the same expert whose testimony they're disputing. Rivalrous redundancy. Whether the state uses its own labs or contracts out to private labs, evidence should periodically and systematically be sent out to yet another competing lab for verification. She and Dookhan worked in the same drug analysis lab for six months , but their motivations to commit fraud were very different: Dookhan wanted to appear as productive as possible, while Farak was driven by a drug addiction and her desire to cover it up.
It has taken several years to flesh out the real damage resulting from their separate misconduct, and the full harm is still being assessed. Sonja Farak tampered with samples and stole narcotics from the forensic labs where she worked. The court has not yet issued its decision as this article goes to press.
follow However, the Massachusetts attorney general expressed support for dismissing the charges against additional defendants since Farak tampered with drug samples assigned to other chemists for analysis. In the aftermath of Dookhan and Farak, a string of other, less prominent instances of misconduct at other US forensic labs emerged, helping to paint a portrait of a field in disarray. For example, Jonathan Salvador, a forensic scientist working at a Texas public safety lab, was accused of falsifying results in several drug cases in early and then quickly suspended.
She stole more than controlled substances in pill form between January and August , including morphine and methamphetamine. In Umatilla County alone, 70 cases were dismissed as of August , and another 40 were expected to be dismissed. Since then, evidence involving roughly defendants in criminal drug cases has been retested due to his involvement. Four cases have been dismissed so far, yet no criminal charges have been filed against Shah. David Weeks, the district attorney from Walker County, Texas, says at least 24 cases were vacated in his jurisdiction alone, yet Salvador was never indicted.
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Another example is Derek Thrush, a Montana crime lab chemist charged in February with three counts of criminal possession of methamphetamine he allegedly stole from work for his own use. Although Thrush pleaded not guilty in April, Missoula County has already dismissed several criminal cases because of his actions, according to James McCubbin, deputy county attorney.
Nika Larsen is serving a three-year prison sentence for removing drugs from a crime lab and replacing them with over-the-counter medications. One of the most recent US scandals involves Ana Romero, an analyst at a crime lab in El Paso in Texas, who in April was accused of dry-labbing blood alcohol samples.
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Romero worked at the lab from until , and defence attorneys have estimated that 22 people were wrongly convicted of intoxication-related offenses due to her misconduct. Such forensic fraud cases are not restricted to the US, and similar problems have been uncovered in the UK. Last year, allegations of data manipulation by two employees at the forensic toxicology company Randox Testing Services RTS in Manchester affected approximately 10, criminal cases that mostly involved drug-driving.
In Yorkshire alone, nearly criminal cases were thrown into doubt. The individuals involved were immediately suspended and later dismissed. The instability of some of the drugs combined with the different analytical approaches between labs will probably mean differences between the original results and those obtained on retesting, Tully noted. Meanwhile, another major forensics controversy has since erupted in the UK. The materials now under re-review were submitted for forensic examination between and That these controversies have hit the UK is not entirely surprising.
Last year, a study led by University College London examined nearly cases involving criminal evidence that came before the UK Court of Appeal of England and Wales between and , and found that evidence had been misinterpreted for of these cases. Canada has endured its own forensics scandal, with significant implications for its judicial system.
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Between and , the facility evaluated more than 24, hair samples from over 16, people, and more than 9, of them tested positive. A high-level commission was ultimately established to determine whether inaccurate hair tests performed under this programme significantly affected individual child protection cases.
The science of hair testing has come under scrutiny before. Before mitochondrial DNA testing was used to analyse hair in criminal cases, prosecutors throughout the US routinely relied on microscopic hair comparison to link a criminal defendant to a crime. In that practice, analysts microscopically observe various characteristics of hairs, typically comparing samples obtained from a crime scene to those taken from a suspect. This is not DNA analysis, and a major criticism has been that these examiners have often not simply testified in court that the hairs were microscopically similar, but have actually asserted or heavily suggested a definitive match.
The FBI investigation remains ongoing, and the agency expects to provide an update in the autumn.
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Beyond microscopic hair analysis, uncertainty has also surrounded several other nascent forensic techniques like complex DNA mixture analysis, which involves examining DNA samples that have multiple contributors. He and colleagues published a key study in in which the same DNA mixture evidence was provided to 17 independent North American analysts to observe if their conclusions were inconsistent.
The study found that just one of the examiners concluded, as did the original DNA examiners who participated in the case, that the suspect could not be excluded. Concerns about forensic science have lurked for some time. Major science advisory bodies in the US and UK had warned about deficiencies in the field that require action. Nist has disseminated these findings to the broader community through oral presentations at conferences and elsewhere.
At the time of writing, Nist was expected to submit the Mix13 study for publication in a peer-reviewed journal shortly. And this is not the first example. It also called for an evaluation of specific techniques — including those used to compare hair strands, DNA samples, bite marks and firearm markings — to determine their scientific validity and reliability. The congressionally requested study also identified a need for stronger standards to analyse and report on forensic evidence, as well as a dearth of peer-reviewed published research establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods.
In the UK, authorities have also sounded alarm bells. She said continuing financial pressures have eroded the time available for professional development in the field, and described the failure of forensic firms to implement required quality standards. To root out these problems, Lee suggests that defence attorneys must be equipped with the necessary scientific training. Defence lawyers must know what questions to ask to probe the science being used to implicate their clients.
The ACS sponsors three science courses for lawyers, through Axion Analytical Labs in Chicago, that focus on things like the use of gas chromatography with flame ionisation detection on ethyl alcohol samples, and scientific techniques for testing drugs in their pre-consumption form, like Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and colorimetrics.
Thus far, almost lawyers have graduated from the ACS forensics chromotography class since it began in , lawyers have completed the forensic drug analysis course from its inception in , and almost have completed the driving under the influence of drugs class since its start in Although the state of forensic science in the US looks bleak with all of the negative publicity, it could be the exact opposite.
However, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions withstood much criticism when he decided in April to shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science , which advised the federal government on how to enhance the reliability of forensic science.