Fault Lines
17 August 2017

Crime Lab Culture: The Need for Stricter Standards

Nov. 2, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Last week, Dalia Lithwick’s Slate piece noted that a seemingly high number of crime lab scandals have grabbed headlines in recent years. The cases encompass errors ranging from sheer negligence to overt fraud and have occurred in labs all over the country.

The scandals have exposed evidence tampering, perjury, and withholding of evidence. Such charges are often linked to a particular person or even section within the crime lab. Whether endemic of a lab culture or one bad apple, a crime lab is the sum of its collective parts. One infected part can bring down the entire system.

It might surprise people to learn that crime labs lack any organized set of mandatory standards. This can contribute to a quality control issue. The crime lab accreditation process—which implies reviews, testing, and audits—is, at best, voluntary and, at worst, non-existent. Accreditation is available through the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), the primary (but voluntary) certifying body for crime labs.

While clinical laboratories are regulated and audited at the federal and state levels, it’s absolutely insane that crime laboratories (tasked with analyzing evidence that ultimately plays a role in a person’s liberty) lack strict accreditation guidelines. Moreover, there is no consistency in the certification of forensic analysts, or in the accreditation of crime laboratories. Most jurisdictions do not require certification of forensic examiners or the crime labs that employ them.

History demonstrates that if a lab produces errors (on any scale), it is unlikely to affect its accreditation from ASCLD/LAB. Indeed, by its own terms, ASCLD/LAB does not conduct random inspections of crime labs. Labs receive notice of a visit, and the lab itself cherry picks the case files for review. Crime lab accreditation is a for-profit business that sorely needs an overhaul.

Crime lab problems come in many shapes and forms: from misconduct to systemic “win at all costs” cultures. For example, San Francisco crime lab technician Deborah Madden admitted to taking cocaine from evidence.  Police arrested Massachusetts chemist Sonja Farak on similar charges related to both cocaine and heroin earlier in 2013. It was revealed in 2010 that North Carolina’s crime lab withheld certain results from defense attorneys. According to an FBI report, the “North Carolina crime lab workers omitted, overstated or falsely reported blood evidence over a 16-year period.”

The harms caused by crime labs errors are often compounded by their lack of transparency. When scandals do come to light, the criminal justice system must reexamine huge numbers of past convictions. Annie Dookhan, a forensic chemist in Boston (highlighted in Lithwick’s post), was directly involved with at least 100 cases in one federal district court alone. As many as 500 federal cases in which she was involved may eventually have to be reviewed.

Ultimately, once state court cases and cases invoking the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements based on state convictions are considered, the toll for review is estimated to reach approximately 34,000 cases. Courts have been forced to overturn convictions where Dookhan handled evidence. The scandal was expected to cost the state more than $40 million.

How does this happen? For her part, Dookhan viewed herself as an integral member of the prosecution team. “She coached ­assistant district attorneys on trial strategy and told one that her goal was ‘getting [drug dealers] off the streets.’” Another district attorney resigned over a string of suggestive emails with Dookhan.

Dookhan’s case is crazy, and surely (read: hopefully) more of an extreme outlier rather than the norm. But it seems like we need to be better at preventing and responding to these situations before they mushroom into a Dookhan magnitude. Perhaps we can start by removing the cozy relationship between crime labs, prosecutors, and law enforcement that can contribute to these situations.

At a time when the federal and states’ governments manage restricted resources, it seems far more efficient to ensure labs are adequately funded rather than dumping money into cleaning up messes. But the financial costs stemming from crime lab errors are dwarfed by the non-monetary costs.

Not only are internal investigations still required to ferret out tainted samples, but, more importantly, the integrity of the criminal justice system is eroded. These scandals undermine society’s faith in a fair and just system, and they destroy lives. There is no way to quantify the human cost suffered by those wrongly incarcerated for convictions based on tainted evidence. And don’t forget that the guilty go free because of this too.

As Lithwick points out, a person who had to be released because of misconduct might actually be guilty and go on to commit other crimes. The answer is inescapable: we need greater oversight and increased accountability. The continued failure to prevent and appropriately respond to these problems exacts too high a toll.

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