A Pennsylvania lab scientist’s mistakes that could call into question evidence in 615 criminal cases focuses attention on the nation’s approximately 400 crime labs, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The facilities remain largely unregulated. “Stunningly, that is true,” said Peter Loge of the Criminal Justice Reform Education Fund, a nonprofit agency that works to educate the public about problems in the criminal justice system. No independent body oversees the nation’s forensic crime labs, which analyze a variety of evidence in criminal investigations. Nor is there a watchdog organization that investigates problems when they occur.
In Phoenix, police said last month that lab technicians miscalculated DNA results, calling nine felony cases into question. Officials in Montana and Washington are reexamining cases involving a forensic scientist after DNA testing cleared two innocent men of rape and called his testimony about hair samples into question. In Houston, an outside audit of the DNA lab that followed a critical television report uncovered a series of problems that could ripple out to hundreds of criminal cases. A majority of City Council members called for the police chief’s resignation.
“Often, the work of the crime lab does not receive a lot of scrutiny from outsiders, so problems can persist for a long time without becoming known,” said William Thompson, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine.
Ralph Keaton of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board said more mistakes were being found in crime labs because more labs were becoming accredited. “We probably didn’t find mistakes like this years ago,” he said. About 230 of the nation’s labs are accredited through the society board, which has devised a manual of crime lab standards and which accredits crime labs on a voluntary basis.
Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that has helped exonerate 131 people wrongly convicted, calls for greater oversight of the nation’s crime labs. Voluntary accreditation is “a nice first step,” Neufeld said, but the accrediation board asks only for “lowest common denominator standards” because it is essentially a trade group of crime lab professionals, not an independent body committed to rigorous investigation.