Scandals, probes and new questions about old convictions are casting doubt on one of the foundations of the criminal-justice system – the crime lab, the Associated Press reports. Over the last year, laboratories at the FBI and in several states – Arizona, Florida and Texas among them – have come under new scrutiny, including criminal investigations, findings of mismanagement, and accusations of falsifying evidence. So far, only a few convictions have been overturned.
Lab directors defend their work. Critics say the problems show the need for independent oversight, and for labs to be separated from the criminal-justice departments where most are based. It is essential that the labs’ work can be trusted, agree critics and the scientists who run tests on DNA, blood, fingerprints, clothing and more.
“They operate like the Wild West,” said Peter Neufeld, a defense lawyer and a founder of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, a group behind many of the DNA-based exonerations across the country in recent years. Neufeld ran down a list of problems: Standards are voluntary and set up by lab directors themselves; too few labs follow the standards; and the overwhelming majority of labs are too closely connected to police departments or prosecutors.
Lab directors say that sweeping criticisms are misguided. “There are always bad actors in any profession,” said Paul Ferrara, director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science. “The difference is that our mistakes do not get buried.”