Already under fire, crime labs cut to the bone

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About 250 case files languish in a bin at the Maine State Police computer crimes unit in Vassalboro. The files document the worst child pornography cases, complete with instructional videos detailing how to sexually assault children without getting caught.

“It’s a staggering weight to know that those cases are sitting back there,” said Sgt. Glenn Lang, commander of the Vassalboro office. “To not be out there addressing those cases, it’s a terrible thing.”

The Maine crime lab can’t get to the cases because it’s overworked. With more cases coming in every week, the bin will likely never be empty.

The Maine crime lab, like many across the country, is stumbling under what specialists call the CSI Effect. Americans see television lab techs unravel the knottiest cases with evidence culled from the smallest clues, thanks to the most advanced equipment ever devised, and they presume that’s how it works in the real world.

It doesn’t. There are serious questions about the credibility of nearly every kind of crime lab analysis, the conclusions of which often rest on unproven science filtered through the subjective judgment of technicians whose training and certification vary wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

And with crime labs struggling under backlogs that already reach back years in many cities and states, budget cuts driven by the recession are threatening to make credible crime scene analysis a lost art, law enforcement officials and forensic specialists say.

“Overall, most laboratories lack adequate, dedicated and stable funding to fully accomplish their work,” the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors warned in the wake of a highly critical National Academy of Sciences report on crime labs, the impact of which continues to shake lawmakers and criminal justice experts a year after it was released.

A telling roster of errors
Crime lab analysis has never been the empirical, nearly foolproof discipline depicted in top-rated TV shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order.”

Except for nuclear DNA analysis, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” the National Academies report said.

Numerous mistakes have come to light in recent months, potentially sabotaging untold numbers of criminal cases.

Three independent investigations are under way at the Metro Crime Lab in Colorado Springs, Colo., which serves several local law enforcement agencies, after it emerged in mid-November that more than 80 DUI suspects may have been falsely accused because their blood-alcohol tests registered higher levels than they should have.The lab is going back through more than 1,000 DUI cases from last year, and “that number may climb,” Colorado Springs police Lt. David Whitlock said.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Kern County, Calif., last month agreed to a plea deal in which a man who killed a sheriff’s deputy when their cars collided will face only six in years in prison on a single count of manslaughter.

The man, who police said was high on methamphetamine, had been charged with vehicular homicide while under the influence of drugs, but the prosecutor acknowledged that his blood sample had been handled by a friend of the victim’s family and was later destroyed before it could be retested. As a consequence, defense attorneys have petitioned to have the crime lab removed from the jurisdiction of the district attorney.

“Why would you ever want the prosecutor who needs the evidence to be in charge of the place the evidence comes from?” asked one of the attorneys, Kyle Humphrey. “That doesn’t make you very confident.”

Crime lab deficiencies have caused the biggest upheaval in Houston.

In August, Ernest Sonnier, 46, was freed after having spent half his life in prison for a kidnapping and rape he didn’t commit. The Innocence Project, an advocacy group affiliated with Yeshiva University in New York, retested samples from Sonnier’s 1985 conviction and discovered that his blood type didn’t match that of stains on the victim’s clothing.

Audit makes ‘Barney Fife look like J. Edgar Hoover’
Sonnier is at least the sixth man to have been released from prison after similar challenges were mounted, revealing shortcomings in the Houston lab that have led to its being shut down twice in the last eight years because of contaminated DNA samples, mistake-filled analysis and even fraudulent lab reports. Investigations by Texas newspapers have found at least three cases in which men were executed after similar alleged mishandling of evidence occurred.

Lawyers and independent experts say there’s no way to tell how many dozens or even hundreds of other similar cases might exist. The Harris County district attorney is investigating about 160 cases in which serious questions have been raised about the crime lab’s performance, a fraction of the many hundreds of investigations clouded by lesser doubts.

In a separate investigation, thousands of violent crime cases prosecuted over the last six years in Houston were placed under review after major problems were discovered in the police fingerprint unit in December. One employee was fired and three others were put on administrative leave after auditors found error rates among the samples it tested as high as 81 percent, potentially sabotaging the chain of evidence.

“The links in this chain are beyond laughable,” said Brian W. Wice, a prominent Houston defense lawyer. “The links in this chain make Barney Fife look like J. Edgar Hoover.”

The audit blamed inadequate quality control, a lack of technical competence and insufficient training of technicians. But the biggest problem, it said, was that there were simply too few people to handle the case load.

It’s not just the police fingerprint unit, which has its own backlog of about 6,000 cases. It’s the entire Houston forensics structure: More than 300 firearms cases were backlogged at the end of January, and about 4,000 rape kits, some dating to the 1980s, were backed up awaiting DNA testing.

Money vanishes as need grows
Authorities tell similar stories across the country, where staffs and training time are shrinking as budgets are cut. Elected officials know it’s political suicide to take police officers off the street, so if jobs have to go, the cuts typically come in back-office services like crime lab analysis:

  • Georgia is planning to close three of its seven regional crime labs on April 1. The state loses an average of four lab technicians a year to better-paying jobs elsewhere — especially in federal operations like the highly regarded FBI Laboratory — or in private industry. There’s no money to hire enough new scientists to keep the labs open, said officials of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which operates the facilities.

“It will take longer to get the evidence and results we need,” said Cpl. Dave Underwood of the Moultrie police, in south Georgia. “We won’t send one at a time, and we will wait until we have several cases” to send to the crime lab in Macon, which at 130 miles away will be the nearest one left.

  • A shortage of ballistics examiners at the Washington State Patrol crime labs has created backlogs of up to a year, but Gov. Christine Gregoire is proposing to cut, not add, jobs. The lab’s acting director, Larry Hebert, insisted that all the fat had been trimmed from his budget and said any further cuts could mean even deeper reductions in service.
  • Requests for DNA analysis rose by 25 percent last year in Kansas, at the same time that the number of scientists at the state crime lab in Wichita dropped by 20 percent. The backlog is now about 800 cases and is expected to rise, because open jobs at the lab won’t be filled during the budget crisis.

“It just bogs down an already bogged-down system,” said Dan Kinning, chief of police in Hillsboro, in central Kansas.

  • The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is seeking legislation this year to allow it to charge police departments and other law enforcement agencies for using its forensics lab. Budget cuts mean the charges — $2,000 a year for small agencies and $6,000 a year for larger agencies — are the only way the TBI can avoid layoffs, Director Mark Gwyn said.

“The evidence that we’re submitting is vital to criminal prosecutions. It’s vital to holding persons accountable who have broken the laws of our communities, of our state," said Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Nashville police. “If law enforcement agencies have to begin paying for routine laboratory testing, it’s obviously going to be a hit to all of our budgets.”

Does it even work?
The money has been drying up even as the National Academies has urged many expensive changes to improve the reliability of crime lab reports. Boiled down from 254 densely scientific pages, it questions two fundamental underpinnings of forensic analysis itself: Is the science reliable, and are analysts qualified to interpret it?

“These questions are significant,” the report said. “Unfortunately, these important questions do not always produce satisfactory answers in judicial decisions pertaining to the admissibility of forensic science evidence.”

Funding for forensic scientists varies widely from place to place, the report notes. Substandard facilities can lead to contamination of the evidence that is analyzed and stored in them. Analysts, many of whom are inadequately trained, are badly overworked. (Plus, they’re human beings, whose judgments are subject to bias.)

And once a report is concluded, it is not subject to assessment by scientific peers; instead, it is put in the hands of defense lawyers whose job it is to destroy it.

It adds up to a system that the public believes is infallible but that experts know is anything but. As the report’s authors concluded:

“Substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people.”