State forensic lab under scrutiny

The Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, once considered among the best, most independent and most efficient in the country, is now facing some serious scrutiny by the NIJ, an arm of the Feds. Norm Pattis wrote about this two days ago and it got picked up by the Courant yesterday. Some of the problems facing the lab are well known to those dealing with them on a regular basis: they are severely understaffed, have an astronomical backlog of cases and even had to deal with some expired DNA kits over the last two years, which, while they did not lead to false positives, surely took up some time with re-testing.

But this is much worse. Apparently there’s a 160 page report of the audit done by the NIJ which criticizes several aspects of the lab’s operations, including the qualifications of the supervisors and the ability to adequately and accurately process and examine the evidence:

The audits focused on the sections of the lab that deal with convicted-offender databases and DNA testing. State crime labs must adhere to federal standards for DNA testing.

The DNA audit team raised questions about supervision, reporting of case results, evidence control, data security, quality assurance, adherence to standard operating procedures for DNA analyses, and validation techniques for DNA test results, among other issues.

These are significant questions that undermine the reliability of DNA results, which are often used by juries as the be-all and end-all of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. DNA evidence is the gold standard, considered fool-proof and error proof, in the minds of the layperson. To have a report that calls into question basic things like evidence control, quality assurance and even SOP for analyses is troubling, to say the least.

How accurate are the results reported by the lab over the last few years? How many cases did this affect? How many convictions were obtained on the strength of these criticized standards and procedures? The implications are staggering.

The state lab didn’t provide the Courant a copy of the report of the NIJ, but every criminal defense lawyer must send a letter to the lab requesting that unedited copy. What exactly does it say? We need to know that, unfiltered, without the alterations and suggestions of the state.

I know several of the people who work at the state lab and I like most of them. I don’t envy them right now, because it seems that a lot of these problems are brought about by severe underfunding. But whatever the reason, the credibility of the lab and its results is now in question and that’s not a good thing – either for the lab itself – or for the people who have been convicted or are awaiting trial as a result of the lab’s testing.

And if you’re waiting for DNA results in your case, you may have to wait a long, long time. From this graphic in today’s paper edition of the Courant, the backlog for DNA testing and analysis is now 4 years!

Last March, a state police official briefed the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Board, made up of police, prosecutors and a cross-section of members of the public.

The facts were alarming, [chief of criminal justice planning for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Mike] Lawlor said: 3,900 “unstarted” forensic cases; 1,800 backlogged firearms cases as of March, up from fewer than 800 in January 2009; statutory deadlines looming in more than 160 felony cases.

“There have been outrageous backlogs with the processing of evidence – DNA, fingerprints, computer hard drives, everything,” Lawlor said. “Police in some cases have had to wait months, sometimes a year or more, for results, and that has affected decisions on arrest and identifying suspects. It’s also delayed trials. It’s been a problem for police and prosecutors statewide.”

Lawlor, ever the prosecutor, forgets one important demographic: the criminal defendant. He who is innocent until proven guilty, but more often than not cannot afford to post bail and thus sits in pre-trial incarceration for months and years pending the outcome of DNA testing. This is as much about solving cold cases and identifying suspects through DNA analysis as it is about the speedy resolution of those cases where people are deprived of their liberty based on questionable policies and procedures at the state lab. If nothing else, we should all start filing motions for bond reduction in cases where DNA analysis is outstanding and will take forever.

4 thoughts on “State forensic lab under scrutiny

  1. Pingback: Morning Links | The Agitator

  2. LJS

    I’ve seen some dubious testimony over the years — some from the lab, some from police forensic experts and retired police experts now in private practice. I’ve long had a concern that the CT defense bar has taken for granted the lab’s work product would be reliable and the testimony not overstated, and not made the challenges and vigorous cross-exams that would keep the lab on its toes.

    Hopefully, this will spur defense counsel to look at the storts of motions and cross that is routine in neighboring states (Mass, home of the Melendez-Diaz decision, has some great CLE materials.) and to keep the lab guys and gals on their toes. I like and respect a number of the lab folks too, but that doesn’t mean the defense bar can ever relax and not give the testimony strong scrutiny.

  3. Gerard Petillo

    I worked at the State Forensic Lab in the Fiream and Tool Mark section for 5 years. When I worked there the backlog in firearms was about 1500 cases. I left the Lab almost a year ago and am now an Independent Forensic Consultnt.

    I can tell you from my experieces working at the State Forensic Lab that MOST of the bench examiners (the people who examine the evidence and testify in court) are some of the best in the forensic field.

    I have not read the report yet however, I can tell you that issues regarding funding, staffing, and policy are managements responsibility. Management is not examinig any evidence and/or testifying in court.

    Please dont let this investigation poison the hard work of these bright, honest, and dedicated, Scientists.

    Jerry Petillo

  4. Pingback: State forensic lab loses accreditation

Leave a Reply