Police crime labs are churning out tainted evidence — and nobody's doing anything about it.
California auditor Elaine Howel says the study raised serious questions. "There are several issues," she says. "Is the evidence being handled appropriately so there's no potential for contamination?" Labs, according to Howel, should "make sure they are consistently applying the methodology so one forensic examiner isn't using one technique and someone is using a different technique to conduct the same type of testing. That ties back to the credibility of the results."
Ten of the outfits were relying on "outmoded" technology that needed replacement. At the Huntington Beach Police Department lab, staffers worked up a Rube Goldberg–<\d>esque scheme to revive a broken arson analysis gadget. Sort of. "Because the laboratory does not have the funds to replace this equipment, staff found a creative way to cool the [machine] using hoses rigged to a faucet," auditors found. But, they noted, "this method could negatively affect the analysis of the evidence processed by this instrument."
Then there was the question of whether the analysts themselves were up to par. "We think forensic examiners need to be tested every year to make sure they're maintaining competence in their ability to perform the forensic examinations they're doing," Howel tells me. Eight of the labs had no proficiency testing for their staffers.
"It helped us put our operation in perspective to the rest of the state," says S.F. lab chief Blake, who thinks the audit was fair. "We did look like we were swamped. It helped us get our additional staff."
Whitehurst, the former top explosives expert at the FBI, doesn't like the term 'whistle-blower.' "We're simply scientists, and we disagree with the type of science that's being practiced — because it's not science," he told me. "Our forensic labs are dictating truth; they're not discovering it." Whitehurst says he constantly hears from irate crime lab scientists claiming their operations are riddled with improprieties.
The Ph.D. chemist spent eight years at the bureau combing the rubble of bomb blasts for clues. And complaining. During his tenure with the bureau, he made 237 written complaints concerning what he saw as a pattern of bunk science and bogus testimony on the part of his colleagues. The charges spurred an 18-month probe by the Justice Department, the phone-book-size results of which were made public in 1997, undoubtedly marking one of the FBI's worst public embarrassments.
The special-inspection team, an international panel of renowned forensic scientists, had few kind words for the lab, finding "significant instances of testimonial errors, substandard analytical work, and deficient practices" in numerous investigations, including the Unabomber, Oklahoma City, and World Trade Center bombings. Among the skeletons in the bureau's closet: "scientifically flawed reports"; examiners devoid of the "requisite scientific qualifications"; and five agents who couldn't be trusted.
Whitehurst's experiences have led him to believe that crime labs should be overseen by federal or state authorities, rather than by ASCLD and its voluntary certification program. "It's a foregone conclusion; there's no question in my mind in five years forensic labs will be regulated, and they will be audited," said Whitehurst, who now lives in Bethel, N.C., and acts as an expert witness in criminal trials. "There's too much discovery happening."
Lab directors argue that their work is constantly reviewed by the courts — juries don't have to believe a forensic expert; judges can overturn verdicts based on forensic evidence — making their profession among the most scrutinized.
Whitehurst disagrees, saying juries, defense lawyers, and judges are often baffled by the science presented to them. "Listen to this phrase: pyrolisis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry,” he says. “Do you know what that is? Let's try this one: fourier transform infrared spectrometry.