Police crime labs are churning out tainted evidence — and nobody's doing anything about it.
It was sort of lightweight." Bolstered by an increased budget and a growing staff, the lab's procedures are improving across the board, according to Blake.
Why should forensic labs, which can land someone on death row, go without government oversight? "I'd like to think we can do this ourselves," Blake replies, noting that the state's management of the DUI testing program has been less than stellar. "I'm a little nervous about other agencies getting involved in regulation," she says, because they don't "really know the science."
Nationally, the accountability vacuum is producing a steady stream of scandals, raising unsettling questions about the way we administer justice in this locked-down nation. A small sampling:
• Let's start with the trial of the century, wherein O.J.'s defense team put the forensic bunglings of the Los Angeles Police Department on display for "unacceptable sloppiness," pointing out a dozen major instances of possible evidence contamination. After losing the Simpson trial, the lab promptly began a thorough overhaul.
• In 1993 the West Virginia Supreme Court found a police blood expert guilty of fabricating or misrepresenting evidence in a staggering 134 cases. The man, one Fred Zain — employed by the state cops during the 1980s — was put on trial for perjury, while the state freed several unjustly imprisoned death row inmates and paid out millions to people who had been wrongfully convicted. Bexar County, Texas, where Zain worked in the early ’90s, also prosecuted him for perjury.
• A few years later, in 1997, the reputation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation crime lab — at the time widely regarded as the pinnacle of forensic science — was shredded by the allegations of a whistle-blowing scientist. The bureau's lab practiced shoddy science and regularly presented inaccurate, pro-prosecution testimony, charged Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, one of the agency's top explosives experts. The FBI denied the allegations and tried to discredit Whitehurst, but a scathing 517-page report by the Justice Department's inspector general corroborated many of the scientist's major claims and recommended disciplinary action against five agents.
• An April 1997 front-page story in the Wall Street Journal brought more unflattering publicity to the FBI lab, scrutinizing the track record of agent Michael Malone, a hair and fiber analyst. The paper quoted three well-known forensic scientists who challenged Malone's analyses (one labeled him a "fraud"), illustrated numerous cases where the agent seemed to be fudging the evidence — and noted that courts were busy overturning convictions obtained with his testimony. "The guy's a total liar," one defense lawyer told the Wall Street Journal.
• In 1998 San Diego jurors convicted a top county police DNA expert of embezzling $8,100 in cash seized as evidence in murder cases. That same year the San Diego Police Department embarked on a 10-month internal investigation into charges of sloppy work and missing evidence at its crime lab, and it admitted that it had lost crucial evidence in an unsolved homicide case.
• Last year a crime lab chemist in Prince George's County, Md., claimed that the police department was using improperly calibrated drug analysis equipment. Defense lawyers promptly challenged some 100 pending drug cases.
California is one of the few states that has actually scoped the inner workings of its local crime labs. The results of that onetime review, performed in 1998 by the state auditor's office, are disturbing. Quality control was lacking at most of the facilities. Many of the labs were using "outdated and improperly working equipment." As in San Francisco, many didn't make their scientists undergo regular proficiency testing.
Without quality assurance measures — minimal at 13 of the 19 labs — the potential for error shoots through the roof.