Posts Tagged ‘St. Paul 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.




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?

News broke in the last few days that the crime lab in St. Paul, Minn., is the latest lab to find itself at the center of a scandal and an investigation.  According the the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s article, it was really just curiosity of some local lawyers and some luck that uncovered the facts, which are now spilling into public hearings:

…[T]testimony last week by lab staff revealed a lack of oversight, training and documentation of evidence-handling and testing procedures. Basic scientific standards were not followed, defense experts testified.

According to a follow-up story, attorneys for three counties that had the St. Paul lab do forensic work say that at least 350 cases may be in jeopardy in those jurisdictions alone.

As we learn the facts over the next few months, I’ll be thinking back to the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences 2009 report “Strengthen Forensic Science in the United States,” and its many sensible recommendations for accrediting, standardizing, and shaping up U.S. forensic labs.  But the St. Paul story also has me remembering back to the many other, similar stories over the last years.  Of course, I remember Fred Zain’s “drylabbing” (that is, no testing at all, but reporting exactly the results law enforcement needed) in West Virginia, but there have been so many others.

Readers, here’s a challenge for you.  What crime lab scandals and investigations do you remember best?  What were the details? (Extra points for nominating/discussing more than one.)   How many is this now, nationwide?  And what must we do to keep this from happening?