Posts Tagged ‘Massachusetts crime lab’

An article posted on Stateline (published by the Pew Center on the States) on November 26, “Forensic Science Falls Short of Public Image,” nails many of the problems with forensic science in the U.S.  But readers will have to go beyond the references to “the CSI effect” and how this troubles police and prosecutors.  For those who read further, the real problems surface: the inherent weaknesses in traditional (non-DNA, non-chemistry based) forensic methods, along with lack of supervision and protocols, occasional outright fraud, lack of judicial knowledge about these issues, and prosecutorial unwillingness to recognize these problems.

“In fact,” says the article “the whole field of forensic science is currently in flux, following a top-to-bottom review in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences. The report cast major doubt on many common forensic techniques, calling them unscientific and error-prone.”  According to Judge Donald Shelton, a trial court judge in Michigan’s Washtenaw County who has written about forensic evidence, it is particularly troubling that judges don’t seem to understand just how serious the problems with forensics are, even though the National Academy of Sciences report could hardly have been clearer.  “One of my concerns, “he says, “is that these forms of evidence that we know from the National Academy of Sciences report aren’t valid, are still routinely offered and routinely admitted by judges.”

I do have to take issue with the writer’s comment that Annie Dookhan, the lab analyst who seems to be responsible for most or all of the huge numbers of fraudulent lab tests in Massachusetts was “led” to do this by overwork, underfunding, and case backlogs.   I bet that her fellow analysts who did not falsify lab results in the same lab under the same conditions would beg to differ.  But the article (part one of a two-part series) is still well worth a read.  In addition to the on-target points about the science of forensic science, it also discusses a number of the recent crime lab scandals in Massachusetts, St. Paul, Minn., Texas, and Detroit.



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?