Concluding its series on forensic science problems, the Chicago Tribune says that crime labs are notoriously resistant to criticism. A decade ago, as Earl Washington Jr. neared his execution date, a leading DNA expert suggested an analyst in the vaunted Virginia state crime lab might have erred in the case. the lab’s director, Paul Ferrara, rejected the criticism. In April, when a second expert hired by Washington’s lawyers questioned another round of tests, Ferrara dismissed him as a “hired gun” and rebuffed calls for an outside review. Several months later, three other experts reached the same conclusion. The lab’s analyst, they said, had misinterpreted the evidence, but Ferrara again balked at an outside review. “I’m not going to admit error when there is none,” Ferrara told the Tribune. Within days of that statement, the the governor of Virginia ordered an audit of the lab’s work on the Washington case. That it took a governor’s edict to force one of the nation’s most-respected labs to allow such a review illustrates the problems undermining confidence in crime labs.
Revelations of shoddy work and poorly run facilities have shaken the criminal justice system like never before, raising doubts about the reputation of labs as unbiased advocates for scientific truth. The far-reaching crime lab scandals roiling the courts are unlike other flaws in the criminal justice system–the rogue prosecutor, the incompetent defense attorney, the unscrupulous cop–because for years the reputation of the labs had been unquestioned. In recent years, evidence of problems ranging from negligence to outright deception has been uncovered at crime labs in at least 17 states. Among the failures were faulty blood analysis, fingerprinting errors, flawed hair comparisons, and the contamination of evidence used in DNA testing. Scandal also hit the FBI crime lab, long considered the nation’s top forensic facility.