Police crime labs are churning out tainted evidence — and nobody's doing anything about it.
I've got a doctorate in chemistry and a jurisdoctorate also. What I'm saying to you are completely foreign concepts. When I try to explain how a ultraviolet spectraphatometer works, or how a micro spectraphatometer works, just saying the words begins the glass-over of the eyes."
The Alameda County Sheriff's crime lab is housed in a two-story building in the foothills just off 150th Avenue in San Leandro. On the second floor, in a series of linoleum-tiled rooms connected by a cluttered hallway, the lab's technicians scope the physical remnants of crime, putting bullets beneath microscopes, lifting latent fingerprints from knife handles, culling DNA strands from splattered blood.
Each year the operation, which analyzes evidence for most of the county's police forces, handles some 200 "major" investigations, most of them murders and rapes. But drug cases (1,800 to 2,000) and DUIs (more than 4,700) make up the bulk of the work. There are only eight lab technicians to handle the massive load.
"Every analytical report has to be right on the mark," said lab director Tony Sprague, who has worked at the facility for 30 years. "We have a huge responsibility to make sure all the results are accurate."
Sprague guides me through the building, showing me a single lead particle, as magnified 10,000 times by a monstrous, $270,000 scanning electron microscope. Next door a white-<\h>coated technician sits glued to a conventional microscope, studying a handgun cartridge. Across the hall are the analysts' personal workstations: on one of the wide-topped tables sit the innards of an auto; on another lie sheets of paper covered with boot prints.
Sprague is an amiable gearhead and explains in detail how each of the machines works. The gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, an ovenlike slab of a machine, can detect the presence of gasoline or kerosene in air samples collected at the scene of a suspected arson fire. Another device uses infrared light to determine the chemical composition of a given substance — a bag of white powder for instance.
The lab's ASCLD accreditation in June 1999 was a huge undertaking, according to Sprague. "It took us about two years [to get certified],” he says. “It was costly from the standpoint that you have to take dedicated staff time away from analytical work to get the paperwork done for the accreditation process. In our case we really didn't change our ways of doing forensic science to meet accreditation standards. There was really no issue about doing things differently — the thing we had to do, we had to document all the policies, the procedures, all of our quality assurance records had to be brought up to a little bit higher level."
Voluntary reviews by the nonprofit ASCLD are enough regulation for Sprague, who views government oversight as a losing proposition. "Some mandated federal program? I don't know that that's really the answer," he says. "That would involve a huge bureaucracy. It would be a very difficult situation."
Ralph Keaton, executive director of ASCLD's accrediting board, agrees. "I think crime laboratories should have some kind of program to review the quality of the work being produced by the laboratory — and that's the reason we came into existence," he tells me via telephone from the organization's headquarters in Garner, N.C. "It's my opinion that no one can evaluate the type of work being done better than the actual practitioners of that discipline. Just like the oversight of the medical profession is best done by the doctors themselves."
Speaking to me in his office library, Sprague tells me he is proud of the work his team does, proud to be acknowledged by his peers. But he admits to a certain frustration, saying that his lab is seriously short-staffed: "We're about one-third the strength we should be at for what we're doing."