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.

  1. Eva Vincze says:

    I have watched this issue for several years on the digital forensic side and have had mixed feelings. Should there be National Standards? To this I would respond a definite yes. In digital forensic as in the “wet” sciences, there are many charlatans hanging out their shingles as “digital forensic experts” and doing a great deal of damage as well as tarnishing the reputations of qualified experts and the field in general.
    But the way we go about developing both National Standards and Accreditation (if needed) is the real dilemma. It’s easy to say that we need one standard for everyone, but labs are different, they have different needs, operational structures and different levels of resources available to them. We often fail to consider that bringing everyone up to National Standards will cost time, money and human resources. If there is no infrastructure to provide these additional resources, it may create hardships for labs that just can’t provide these. I am reminded of the story I heard from a Chief of a Fire Department Unit during the “weapons of mass destruction era” who could not buy the fire truck they desperately needed because the government was forcing them to buy thousands of dollars of WMD response gear that they probably will never need. When developing “standards”, we often forget the practical consequences of those actions.
    In terms of Accreditation, I’ve talk to a number of Digital Forensics Labs that are required to meet Accreditation Standards which were originally intended for the “wet” (biology, chemistry, toxicology, etc. ) forensic sciences. Some of these standards do not apply to the digital world and are again costly expenses that could be utilized more effectively elsewhere. The paperwork involved in the Accreditation process is also time consuming and diverts attention away from what at the end of the day is the most important – the work – effectively solving cases.
    I do support the development of National Standards – if they are framed as “minimum” standards and consideration is given to flexibility and the business side of forensic sciences as well as the science side.
    The last crucial factor I see is leadership. Standardization has been a large kettle of worms for a long time, partially because people don’t “play well with others”. All groups support some form of standardization – as long as it’s their form of standardization. Agreement is a difficult needle to find in that haystack. Without the right set of leadership, this issue will spin for many more years. By the “right leadership” I mean individuals who are known and respected in all aspects of the field and who come to the table with the intention of doing what’s best for forensic sciences, not what’s in their (or their organization’s) best interests. I suspect this will be as hard to find.

  2. […] Is It Time for National Standards for Forensic Labs?. […]

  3. This would be a good solution. We’d need a rule to go with this arrangement that the referral to the second lab must be blind: the second lab wouldn’t know which lab did the first evaluation, which analyst did it, or what the result was.

  4. Robert Rios says:

    Until some sort of accreditation system is in place I think a labs findings should be sent to a second lab for their evaluation. This would be a check and ballance system that would give creditability to both lads

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