Think Forensic Science Can Always Be Trusted? Think Again
In today’s world, nearly everything we use is influenced in one way or another by software. Smart phones are overtaking the cell phone market. Almost everybody in the family has a personal computer, or uses one at work. Cars have sophisticated touch screens, and there is now Wi-Fi atop Mount Everest. (No, seriously).
While you don’t always have to be tech-savvy to be able to work these sophisticated devices, we believe it’s easy to tell when things we use aren’t working properly. Fighting the urge to throw the computer out the window is tough when it shuts off intermittently, brings up those error messages, or displays nonsensical information. Calling tech support or bringing the instrument in for service to investigate the root cause of the problem is the best approach to ensure that the frustrating problem doesn’t happen again, or manifest itself in some other damaging way.
Unfortunately, this step isn’t always taken. Even in the seemingly rigorous scientific field of criminal forensics where people are convicted based on tested evidence, amazingly, equipment functionality isn’t always considered to be very important.
In fact, information gathered by defense attorneys here in Phoenix shows that the Scottsdale Crime Lab may be using faulty, unreliable equipment to test blood alcohol samples. Partially disclosed materials show that vials are frequentlymislabeled, the instrument sporadically shuts off or drops information from readouts, and unbelievably, information from test samples are often transposed from one sample to another with no known cause or indication by the laboratory that this has occurred. The extent of machine problems is still unknown, and data review often misses significant errors. What this means in theory is that defendant blood samples could be ‘switched’ by the instrument, and the laboratory would never know the difference.
Employees at the police-run crime lab maintain that these software and hardware problems don’t affect the final results used in court. But results say otherwise. The underlying problem hasn’t been fully investigated nor has it been fixed, and problems continue to occur. Criminalists state that no log or record is kept of these problems, so their frequency rate isn’t known. When problems occur, samples are merely rerun until results produced ‘seem acceptable,’ and evidence of prior issues with the other runs, no matter how serious, is considered to be irrelevant.
Unfortunately, for those in Scottsdale charged with DUI, these results are frequently concealed from many defense attorneys. Defendants are being convicted on arguably erroneous evidence, without being able to introduce a majority of these problems during trial. This ongoing catastrophic discovery is being litigated in the Maricopa County Superior Court, to investigate the scientific accuracy and reliability of the machine used at the Scottsdale laboratory under new, stricter evidentiary rules. Hearings will be ending next week, and parties will wait for a judicial ruling to come down later this summer.
Myself and a team of defense attorneys have been invited to give a lecture presentation at the upcoming Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice (AACJ) seminar this weekend in Tucson, Arizona. This situation will be explained in detail to hundreds of Arizona lawyers explaining the seriousness of this ongoing situation, responses received from various jurisdictions, and methods for presentation of this enormously detailed and serious situation to juries at trial. Keep the news stations on and look for coverage of this ongoing story by the Arizona Republic and other news media.
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