Posts Tagged ‘forensics’

Following up on my last post, in which I asked why there were still no national standards for forensic science five years after the National Academy of Sciences’2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, and with scandal after scandal in U.S. crime labs all over the country, there may be light on the horizon.  On January 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science.

According to the announcement issued by DOJ and NIST:

Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.

John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the Commission “will help ensure that the forensic sciences are supported by the most rigorous standards available—a foundational requirement in a nation built on the credo of ‘justice for all.’ ”

The formation of the Commission could be the a significant milestone in the march toward the use of real science and defensible national standards in forensic labs.  But it may be limited in what it can achieve just by its creation and structure: it is not a body created by Congress with power to come up with and implement standards or to regulate anything.  Rather it is a federal advisory committee, formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.  (A quick primer on the Act is here.)   It investigates and debate designated topics, and then reports its recommendations to the relevant federal department(s) that formed it (in this case, the DOJ and NIST).  Those agencies could choose to embrace and follow, or could choose to reject, some, all, or none of the Commission’s suggestions.

Still, this is a hopeful sign that we might be heading in the right direction.  At the very least, we will see a national conversation between the very large number of Committee members; they come from a variety of backgrounds in government, science, the legal system, and elsewhere.  See the list of more than thirty Commission members at the bottom of this announcement.

I hope readers will weigh in on the following question: realistically, what will come from the Committee?  Will the government adopt these recommendations?  Will the recommendations include national standards to regulate forensic testing, assure quality control, and the like? In the end, will the work that you foresee coming from the Commission improve the U.S.’s largely unregulated system?

Here we are, more than a month after chemist Annie Dookhan, formerly of the Massachusetts State Drug Laboratory, entered a guilty plea to producing fraudulent forensic testing results, and went to prison.  The scandal, potentially involving tens of thousands of cases, has resulted in the release of hundreds of convicted persons. All of this has reportedly cost the state of Massachusetts more than 8 million dollars, and the state has budgeted almost 9 million more for the continuing damage.    Readers have seen coverage of the Massachusetts scandal, and several others, here and here and here.

But Dhookan and the Massachusetts Drug Laboratory are far from alone.  According to a report by National Public Radio, there have been  twelve major crime lab scandals in the U.S. in just the last two years.  With all of this damage  – to individual cases and defendants, to state and local budgets, and to the public trust — occurring all over the country, how have policy makers at the national level responded?

Well, they haven’t.  At least not yet.

Almost five years after the release of the National Academy of Sciences’ report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S.: A Path Forward,” which recommended (among other things) the establishment of national industry standards for forensic labs and a National Institute of Forensic Science,  as well as the independence of every crime lab from police agencies and prosecution offices, none of this has happened.  Nor is accreditation of laboratories required.

According to National Public Radio, Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Patrick Leahy of Vermont “are working to introduce legislation this year” which could address some of these problems.  But nearly five years after the NAS report, and with the parade of crime lab scandals  continuing without let up, why has it taken five years to get to this very preliminary point?

Readers, would mandatory national standards help?  Are they appropriate?  What about requiring accreditation?

If you are from outside the U.S., does your country set mandatory national standards for crime labs?  Is accreditation required?

The time has long since passed for us to do something about this set of problems in the U.S.  We just can’t afford the damage to the credibility of our criminal justice system and the costs of  reviewing cases and releasing convicted prisoners — some of whom may very well be guilty, but whose cases are tainted.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in partnership with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), will review 2,000 cases in which microscopic hair analysis of crime scene evidence was conducted by the FBI Laboratory.  The review, prompted by the DNA-based exoneration of several men convicted on the basis of hair microscopy, will focus on “specific cases in which FBI Laboratory reports and testimony included statements that were scientifically invalid.”  The Innocence Project’s announcement of the review is here; a representative news article is here.

In a move that shows just how seriously the DOJ is taking this review, it has done something unheard of:

Because of the importance attached to these cases, the DOJ has agreed, for the first time in its history, not to raise procedural objections, such as statute of limitations and procedural default claims, in response to the petitions of criminal defendants seeking to have their convictions overturned because of faulty FBI microscopic hair comparison laboratory reports and/or testimony.

Translation: DOJ is not going to fight this review in any of these cases; they’re going to be part of it.

It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the shift in outlook this represents.  Usually, as readers of Failed Evidence know, law enforcement (and I include DOJ in that phrase) resists science-based review and testing; that’s the thrust of the book.  I am happy to say that this is refreshingly different.  According to Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, “[t]he government’s willingness to admit error and accept its duty to correct those errors in an extraordinarily large number of cases is truly unprecedented.  It signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles.”

Of course, this review will not affect cases in which hair analysis was handled by state crime labs.  But here’s hoping they will take this as an example, as the Grits for Breakfast blog argues ought to be done in Texas.

For a sense of the damage that sloppy hair analysis and testimony about it has done in prior cases, listen to this NPR story and interview about the case of Dennis Fritz, in Ada, Oklahoma.  John Grisham’s nonfiction book “The Innocent Man” is an excellent read about the case.

Maybe this is the beginning of a trend.  Hats off to DOJ, the Innocence Project, and NACDL.

Today the U.S.  Supreme Court hears arguments in Maryland v. King, the Court’s latest foray into  DNA testing.  Most reports have focused on the clash between law enforcement’s desire to test every arrested person in order to try to solve old cases, and those who advocate for a strict interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy.  For example, a report by the excellent Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio discussed the positions of police, who believe taking a sample from every person arrested is a minimal intrusion that can have a big payoff, and the arguments of defense attorneys and civil libertarians, who feel that allowing testing of all arrestees would surrender the basic principles of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful searches and seizures.

But there’s a question that may be far more important: from a crime fighting point of view,   is it a good idea for police to take and process a DNA sample for everyone who gets arrested?   Of course there will be some cases — such as the King case itself — in which the time-of-arrest sample leads to an arrest for a different, serious crime.  But taking samples from every arrestee may actually hurt our efforts to use DNA most effectively to make ourselves safe.  According to an article in Slate by Brandon Garrett and Erin Murphy, real public safety gains from DNA lie not with taking samples from every jaywalker and burglar and hoping for a hit in a cold case, but instead in taking many more samples from crime scenes.  In other words, we get more hits when we process samples from active crime scenes and match them against our already-large DNA database, instead of fishing for leads among the whole population of more than 12 million people arrested every year.  And all of those additional samples from arrestees crowd out and slow down the processing of samples from real crime scenes and victims, creating backlogs.  In other words, bigger DNA databases is not the answer to crime.

[B]igger is only better if DNA databases grow in the right way: by entering more samples from crime scenes, not samples from arrestees. DNA databases already include 10 million-plus known offender profiles. But a database with every offender in the nation cannot solve a crime if no physical evidence was collected or tested.  And police collect far too few such samples….The police solve more crimes not by taking DNA from suspects who have never been convicted, but by collecting more evidence at crime scenes.  Even worse, taking DNA from a lot of arrestees slows the testing in active criminal investigations….Backlogs created by arrestee DNA sampling means that rape kits and samples from convicted offenders sit in storage or go untested.

The bottom line: even if the Supreme Court says we can take a sample from every person arrested, doesn’t mean we should.

 

Today I’ll be giving a talk on Failed Evidence at the University of Houston Law Center, 4800 Calhoun Road, Houston, 77004, at noon in room BLB 240.  The talk is free and open to the public.  I’ll be discussing the book and my thoughts about how we can move toward a future in which the existing scientific work on eyewitness identification, interrogation of suspects, and basic (i.e., non-DNA) forensics will make for better, more accurate investigation and prosecution of crime.  I’ll be speaking to law students, faculty, members of the university community, attorneys, and interested members of the public.

Details on the event are here.

Houston is a particularly interesting place to have this discussion.  Over the past ten years, the crime lab in Houston has had repeated problems.  After all of this, the authorities decided to try something they had not done before: they are removing the crime lab from the jurisdiction of law enforcement and putting it under the control of an independent body, the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation.  I wrote about this in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle on Saturday, which you can see here.  This move puts Houston’s efforts to deal with forensic reform ahead of the  curve, and implements one of the main recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S.: A Path Forward.

 

 

 

I’ve written a number of times (here and here an here, for example) about the problems with forensic science laboratories in this country.  Just in the last few months, we’ve seen scandals hit labs in Massachusetts, St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Mississippi.  It seems that the parade might never end.

But today, news emerged that indicates that, just maybe, forensic reform might be on the national agenda.

The new Congress will, of course, be preoccupied with budget and fiscal matters, and also with the President’s efforts on gun control and an expected push for immigration reform.  But Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has announced that he intends to put forensic reform onto the long list of issues he will examine.  According to The BLT (the Blog of the Legal Times, which covers law and government in Washington), Leahy’s committee will be working on an ambitious agenda: immigration, national security and civil liberties issues (including the use of drones in both foreign and domestic contexts), and gun control policy, but that isn’t all.  “The committee will also focus on promoting national standards and oversight for forensic labs and practitioners,” BLT says.

This is a welcome development.  People can disagree about whether we should have national standards (I think yes) or a “national institute of forensic science,” (again, I say yes) as proposed in the National Academy of Sciences’ 2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.  But it’s hard to argue that we should not hold the current situation up to the light for some long-overdue scrutiny and discussion of  higher standards and better oversight.  With the never-ending parade of state and local scandals in crime labs, a little federal look-see could actually help.

On the November 20 edition of NPR’s All Things Considered, “Scandals Call Into Question Crime Labs’ Oversight” pointed out that it has been more than three years since the National Academy of Sciences issued its landmark report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, demanding changes in how crime labs in the U.S. were run: everything from labs’ independence from law enforcement, to the lack of proper protocols and procedures, to poor quality of the science that makes up forensic science.  Regrettably, little has changed.

Three years ago, a report from the National Academy of Sciences exposed serious problems in the nation’s forensic science community. It found not only a lack of peer-reviewed science in the field, but also insufficient oversight in crime laboratories.  Little has changed since that report came out, but concerns are growing as scandals keep surfacing at crime labs across the country.

In just the last six months, we’ve seen the still-unfolding scandal at the Jamaica Plains crime lab in Massachusetts and the crime lab problems in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I’ve blogged about both here and here.  But we never seem to stop hearing about these things.  The story mentions scandals in Nassau County, New York, and in North Carolina, but there have been many others.  Why do we keep hearing about  this happening over and over, like a forensic-focused version of the movie Ground Hog Day?

Readers, please comment — and mention other crime lab scandals of the last ten or fifteen years.  One reader mentioned the lab in San Francisco.  Let’s try to collect them, and look for the common threads.

Last week’s event on November 8 at the University of Minnesota Law School exceeded expectation: a large, lively audience (est. 120) asking great questions, and an impassioned panel of local officials and a defense attorney giving their own insightful and at times impassioned reactions to my talk on “Failed Evidence.”

There was one thing that was not unexpected: plenty of discussion of the still-unfolding scandal at the St. Paul crime lab, including a revelation that I had not heard before.

For those not familiar with what’s been happening at the St. Paul lab, take a quick look at my Failed Evidence blog post from last Thursday, which will link you to much of the news coverage in the last several months.  We’ve learned about a lack of protocols, some very sloppy handling of evidence, and more.  But at the event, we heard from John Harrington, former chief of police in St. Paul and a member of the panel, that the problems recently revealed may in fact have roots that go back some years, and that he told local officials about shortcomings at the lab as early as 2006 and 2007.  Chief Harrington said that he brought engineers from 3M into the lab in 2006 to study it, pinpoint any problems, and to tell him what to fix and how.  The good folks at 3M did their work, and came back to Chief Harrington with a plan and a price tag: $2 million dollars.  Chief Harrington sought federal funding, but without success.  He then went to local officials, and they turned him down.  He was told, in effect, do the best you can with what you have.  There was no appetite for fixing the problems if there was a cost to doing so; the system would simply have to limp along.

Without knowing more, it is impossible to tell for sure whether the problems spotted by 3M in 2006 were the same ones that came to public notice in 2012, or whether the issues found by 3M  in 2006 led to the 2012 issues.  But we can be sure of one thing in this world: you get what you pay for, and if you won’t pay to improve things when necessary, you won’t get improvement.  So is seems that this information deserves to be taken seriously.  If these facts are not already part of the investigation into the lab scandal (and I can’t find anything about them in the news coverage thus far — please correct me if I am wrong), perhaps they should be.

In my op-ed article in yesterday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, I gave Minnesota good marks on moving toward better, science-based investigative practices, particularly recording interrogations (required by state Supreme Court decision since 1994) and the use of sequential, blind lineups (Ramsey County).  I also made a brief reference to the problems at the St. Paul crime lab that have been in the headlines in the Twin Cities for some months.  That situation is worth thinking about, especially in light of the unfolding scandal in the crime lab in Massachusetts I’ve been posting about (here and here, for example).  (This will all be discussed in today’s free public presentation on Failed Evidence at the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis at 4:30 pm.)

According to some of the reporting (for example, here and here), the problems in the St. Paul crime lab include lack of proper procedures and protocol, and failure to follow the procedures that did exist.  Work was sometimes sloppy, and that has endangered some guilty verdicts.

Unlike some of the other crime lab scandals, in which fraud or errors seems to have represented an effort to help law enforcement with erroneous results that supported findings of guilt, the errors in St. Paul actually seem to have undermined the fact finding process in both directions: false positives and false negatives.  This highlights an important point: bad forensic work can mean not only that the innocent are convicted, but that the guilty may go free.

A court has heard multiple days of testimony about the faulty lab work, and a ruling is expected after the first of the year.  In the meantime, the investigation continues, with at least one case dropped and others possibly headed in that direction.

All of this cries out for change.  Crime labs should be independent of police or prosecutorial control.  (Of course, this isn’t enough by itself; the lab in trouble in Massachusetts was under the control of the state’s health department when the misdeeds occurred.)  Proper protocol and procedures are essential, along with periodic auditing and accountability to make sure this means something.  And rigorous proficiency testing and certification should be mandatory.

We would accept no less in a lab that tests over-the-counter medicines for effectiveness and safety; why would we accept less for labs that guide the criminal justice system?

For those who would like a chance to read a bit of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, the Utne Reader has posted an online version of the first chapter of the book.  You can get to it by clicking here.