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It’s Time To Take a Closer Look At Our Crime Labs

Back on December 5th, we discussed the Hinton crime lab scandal in Boston featuring Annie Dookhan and the greater implications that this could have on labs across the nation and the practice of forensic science in crime labs in general. Part of the concern is that even though a lab may be accredited and “approved” by ASCLD, how can we have confidence in the results that a crime lab is producing? There needs to be a nationwide shift from blindly trusting these labs’ “science” to a new focus to demand that these labs are producing reliable results by using reliable methods. Reliable methods are those that have been approved by the scientific community. (Check out the International Organization for Standardization’s 17025 for a quick overview). Forging test results? Definitely not approved. Having a police officer with no scientific background running a lab? Not approved. Continuing to use a machine that shuts itself off and produces errors? Again, not approved.
This same concern has recently been echoed in an NPR article on January 3rd. Author Deborah Becker similarly focuses on Dookhan, the analyst who lied in court regarding her credentials and also forged test results. Becker also notes that this particular scandal is serving as a spotlight, focusing the attention of defense attorneys, prosecutors, and those in the forensic science community on the lack of “national regulations governing forensic analysts’ credentials, and no uniform standards for the labs themselves.” As we noted on December 5th, the accreditation process can make sure that the methods that a lab is supposed to use are appropriate, but we had doubts about the ability to manage the human factor: the analysts, themselves, and the interwoven nature of police, prosecution, and crime labs. In that same vein, Becker quotes ASCLD chief operations officer, John Neuner, in her article stating: “Certainly a laboratory can have all the policies and procedures in the world, but if you don’t have ethical people working there, then you’re going to have problems.” She also refers to concerns from forensic consultant, Brent Turvey, who asks: “Are we creating crime fighters, or are we creating scientists?” When there is a shift away from producing reliable results and towards procuring convictions, our justice system is in trouble.
In yet another example of problems in forensic labs addressing Turvey’s exact question, the New York Times reports in its article “Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct,” federal prosecutors in New York are now trying to clean up the mess created when vital lab tests in a case “revealed multiple instances of sloppy work that had led to wrongful convictions in earlier cases.” Compounding the predicament, the prosecutors knew that an investigation into the lab was ongoing yet failed to disclose this to defense attorneys and the court. On appeal, dissenting Judge Kozinski criticized the prosecutors’ actions, but also noted “only judges can put a stop to (their conduct).”
Even though judges may be the only ones who can force prosecution and law enforcement to start taking responsibility for this sort of conduct, it is not the only way to begin fixing the problem. As the New York Times noted, “prosecutor’s offices should adopt a standard ‘open file’ policy, which would involve turning over all exculpatory evidence as a rule.” This simply means that in instances where the prosecutors are aware of evidence that could affect a case (like a crime lab’s shoddy work), they need to inform both attorneys and the court. Having standards, like ISO 17025, that the lab must comply with—and holding crime labs to those standards—is another step in the right direction. And it’s still important that this information regarding prosecution and forensic sciences be shared with the public. As Judge Kozinski stated, this is about “the public’s trust in our justice system.” If the public is going to have confidence in its system, all aspects of that system, the police, prosecution, crime labs, and judiciary, must be credible. The public—the taxpayers—are the ones who are footing the bill for all of this. And the public are the ones who need assurances that the right people are held responsible for crimes.

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