Posts Tagged ‘Jamaica Plain lab scandal’

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?

In the latest result of the Jamaica Plain crime lab scandal in Massachusetts, convicted criminals are leaving jail and a district attorney recoils at the damage done.  An article in today’s Boston Herald says that the cases of at least  twenty inmates have been affected so far, and more releases will soon follow.

The wrongdoing at the lab, in which protocols were not followed and results were possibly falsified, points out the importance of many of the recommendations in Failed Evidence and in the National Academy of Science’s 2009 report on forensic sciences: established protocols that trigger systemic warnings if not followed; laboratory accreditation and analyst certification; and regular proficiency and quality assurance testing, just to name a few.  But it’s actually more instructive to hear the comments of Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, upon hearing that inmates serving sentences had been freed because of the scandal:

It makes me feel sick that the hard work that had gone into prosecuting these individuals could be thrown out the window…There will be a larger onslaught in the coming weeks of people who have committed very serious crimes who will be let out of jail or face significantly lesser charges.  It leaves me kind of speechless that one individual could cause so much damage.

There’s only one thing you can say to this:  Mr. Morrissey is right.  A lot of hard work by good police officers and dedicated prosecutors has gone for naught, and some number of guilty people will get out of jail or serve less time than they could have — something they do not deserve.  It is a huge waste and a real injustice, which will only be compounded if the individuals freed go out and commit more crimes.

We don’t yet know the full story: was this one rogue lab worker, as Mr. Morrissey’s statement suggests, or was the wrongdoing more widespread?  Whatever the answer to that question is, we know that, going forward, all of the leaders in the criminal justice system who have felt the impact of this scandal must lead the way to comprehensive reform.  Nothing less will do, because nothing less will assure us that the same thing can’t happen again.