Crime Labs Need Improvement: The Quality of the Labs Is Criminal; Government Must Invest in Personnel and Facilities

By Giannelli, Paul C. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Crime Labs Need Improvement: The Quality of the Labs Is Criminal; Government Must Invest in Personnel and Facilities


Giannelli, Paul C., Issues in Science and Technology


In their examination of the criminal convictions of 62 men who were later exonerated by DNA evidence, Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer concluded that a third of the cases involved "tainted or fraudulent science." Although in some cases rogue experts were directly to blame, a much larger problem exists: The forensics profession lacks a truly scientific culture--one with sufficient written protocols and an empirical basis for the most basic procedures. This results in an environment in which misconduct can too easily thrive. Stated another way, forensic science needs more science.

On an individual level, one of the most notorious cases involved Fred Zain, the chief serologist of the West Virginia State Police Crime Laboratory. A judicial report found that Zain committed many acts of misconduct over 10 years, including overstating the strength of results, reporting inconclusive results as conclusive, repeatedly altering laboratory records, grouping results to create the erroneous impression that genetic markers had been obtained from all samples tested, and failing to report conflicting results. In reviewing the report, the West Virginia Supreme Court spoke of "shocking and egregious violations" and the "corruption of our legal system."

On a systemic level, perhaps the best example is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) laboratory, considered to be the country's premier crime lab. A 1997 Inspector General's report on the lab found scientifically flawed testimony, inaccurate testimony, testimony beyond the competence of examiners, improper preparation of laboratory reports, insufficient documentation of test results, scientifically flawed reports, inadequate record management and retention, and failures of management to resolve serious and credible allegations of incompetence. The report's recommendations are revealing because they are so basic. They include: seeking accreditation of the laboratory by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB); requiring examiners in the explosives unit to have scientific backgrounds in chemistry, metallurgy, or engineering; mandating that each examiner prepare and sign a separate report instead of a composite report without attribution to individual examiners; establishing a review process for analytical reports by unit chiefs; preparing adequate case files to support reports; monitoring court testimony in order to preclude examiners from testifying to matters beyond their expertise or in ways that are unprofessional; and developing written protocols for scientific procedures. In short, the report called for scientific management.

Accreditation lacking

More than a decade ago, molecular biologist Eric Lander, who served as an expert witness in one of the first court cases involving DNA evidence, noted: "At present, forensic science is virtually unregulated, with the paradoxical result that clinical laboratories must meet higher standards to be allowed to diagnose strep throat than forensic labs must meet to put a defendant on death row." Since that time, there have been a number of voluntary attempts to improve crime laboratories, such as the accreditation process of the ASCLD/LAB. Nevertheless, except for New York, Texas, and Oklahoma, there is no mandatory accreditation. A similar situation exists with death investigation agencies accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. Although 40 medical systems have been accredited, they cover only 25 percent of the population. In addition, accreditation rates are low for practicing forensic scientists, even though forensic certification boards for all the major disciplines have been in existence for more than a decade.

Although it is not the only reason, lack of funding is a major contributing factor to these failures. Meeting accreditation and certification standards costs money, and crime labs have been chronically shortchanged.

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