Washington, DC (February 15, 2013) – Four years ago Monday, on February 18, 2009, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report to Congress sharply critical of the forensic science system in the U.S., finding an inconsistent system rife with “serious deficiencies.”
The report made a number of crucial recommendations aimed at fixing America’s seriously flawed system, including urging the establishment of a wholly independent federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS). Among many aspects of America’s forensic science system that require “overhaul,” according to the NAS report, are the need for mandatory, standardized certification and accreditation of forensic science education and laboratories and certification of forensic science professionals. The report also cites the need for institutional independence of public forensic laboratories, which the NAS found often hold a prosecutorial bias.
NACDL President Steven D. Benjamin said “Lawmakers have failed to act on the problems and recommendations identified four years ago in the NAS report. Those problems continue to degrade and compromise the criminal justice system at an unabated rate across our country. For those who lose their freedom because of deviations from scientific standards and principles, this is simply unacceptable.”
NACDL reiterates its support for the 2009 NAS report and recommendations and seeks to draw the government’s attention to the ongoing crisis in jurisdictions throughout the nation in order to spur these overdue reforms:
2012 – FBI testimony on microscopic hair comparison found to be unreliable, starting a review of more than 21,000 cases handled before 2000.
2010 – The California Department of Justice found that quantities of methamphetamine brought in for testing at its Ripon crime lab had disappeared.
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2010 – A San Francisco lab technician was accused of stealing cocaine from the city’s crime lab. A few months later, the crime lab’s drug section was shut down.
7/2009 – Faced with allegations that one of his technicians had mixed up DNA test tubes, the San Francisco crime lab manager denied any knowledge of the mix-up. An investigation by ASCLDL/LAB found that there was indeed a mix-up and all records pertaining to it had been destroyed. A month after the report was issued on the incident, ASCLDL/LAB reaccredited the SFPCDL for five years.
8/2011 – Connecticut state crime lab lost accreditation from ASCLDL/LAB because of concerns relating to evidence control, quality assurance, and management. This led to a serious backlog of cases that have yet to be analyzed.
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1/2012 – The Chicago crime lab found through an internal quality assurance check that one of their crime lab analysts had failed to meet the standards for fingerprint analysis. Around a dozen cases had to be put on hold while the fingerprints were reexamined.
2012 – A sheriff’s detective misidentified a fingerprint, leading to the conviction of an Indiana woman. After eight years in prison, she was exonerated. The detective continues to work at the sheriff’s department.
2013 – State chemist Sonja Farak has been accused of tampering with drug evidence, potentially affecting 60,000 samples in 34,000 cases.
2012 – Chemist Annie Dookhan has been accused of falsifying drug sample test results, forging paperwork and mixing up samples. Since then, over 200 defendants have been released and their cases have been put on hold while their lawyers challenge their convictions. Dookhan is believed to have been doing this for years.
2011 – A former Detroit crime lab was abandoned with evidence left in the abandoned building for anyone to have access to. The lab, which closed in 2008, was investigated and it was discovered that the lab workers had been habitually sloppy and had high error rates.
2012 – The St. Paul crime lab was discovered to have little oversight, “poor documentation of the testing process and an absence of standardized policies for multiple aspects of its work.” This included that they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by illegal drugs. In particular, fingerprint evidence and drug samples are believed to be unreliable.
2012/2013 – Evidence suggests that Dr. Steven Hayne, a forensic pathologist, testified to help convict two innocent people, and possibly more. He is believed to have made numerous misrepresentations about his qualifications and given testimony on theories that are not accepted forensic science.
2/2011 – Nassau County’s crime lab failed to follow testing procedures and national crime lab standards, requiring that hundreds of cases be reexamined. Nassau County government officials closed the lab soon after discovering this.
5/2010 – A NYPD criminalist was found to have taken shortcuts in testing drugs leading to unreliable results. The criminalist under question tested a substance for cocaine, determined it was negative and instead of retesting the sample, she marked the substance as positive for cocaine, leading all of the samples she had tested to be questioned.
2010 – Lab workers were found to have failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence, including in death penalty cases. It was also discovered that lab technicians had an unfair bias towards prosecutors, leading to false or misleading test results that supported the prosecution’s theories. The investigation of the SBI blood serology unit yielded a total of 229 cases of misrepresentation of blood serology. Of the 229 cases, seven persons had been executed, others were on death row, and some had died in jail.
2011 – State investigative officials found approximately 70 cases in which analysts did not report additional tests and results to prosecutors. These were discovered after the first investigation in 2010. Some of these cases involved the analysis of bodily fluid, including semen and urine.
2012 – Oregon must review several cases after investigating the handwriting unit and finding mistakes by their analysts.
5/2012 – Philadelphia Police Department crime lab technicians flunked a routine test given in order to keep their accreditation. This could potentially bring hundreds of cases back to the courtroom.
2012 – 26 cases were under review this past October in Texas because of discredited investigative techniques and the use of outdated science related to arson to convict suspects.
2012 – The drug testing program in the Harris County probation office conducted faulty urinalysis tests, sending innocent probationers back to jail.
To improve the reliability of forensic science and the labs and practitioners responsible for testing evidence, NACDL supports the recommendations of the report of the National Academy of Sciences Report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, released in 2009. In February 2010, NACDL adopted additional Principles and Recommendations to Strengthen Forensic Evidence and Its Presentation in the Courtroom.
For the most recent list of crime lab scandals, click here.
To learn more about crime labs & forensics reform, and NACDL’s efforts in this area, visit http://www.nacdl.org/criminal-defense/crime-labs-and-forensics-reform/.
Ivan J. Dominguez, Director of Public Affairs & Communications, (202) 465-7662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.