Police crime labs are churning out tainted evidence — and nobody's doing anything about it.
In California only DUI-<\h>testing procedures are regulated by state law.
"There's more regulation in whether some clinical lab can give a test for strep throat than there is on whether you can use a test to put somebody in the gas chamber," public defender Burt says. "That to me seems backwards. The stakes are the highest in the criminal justice system. These people are deciding who lives or dies."
The ramifications spread beyond individual cases. While billions of dollars have been poured into police departments and prisons over the past two decades, pols and badge wearers have shown little interest in adequately funding or regulating crime labs. California's facilities need hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs and equipment upgrades. The idea of public oversight is off the radar entirely.
The nonprofit American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) is the closest thing forensics has to a regulatory agency. Created in the early 1970s to "improve the quality of laboratory services provided to the criminal justice system," the group runs a voluntary accreditation program for forensic facilities. To get the society's stamp of approval, a facility must pass a 149-point inspection. (Sample question: "Are the procedures used generally accepted in the field or supported by data gathered in a scientific manner?") To maintain the certification, a lab must be tested annually and be reinspected every five years.
Of the approximately 500 labs in the United States, a mere 187 are accredited by the ASCLD. Only 11 of California's 19 local crime labs have the group's seal of approval. The San Francisco police facility isn't one of them. Neither is the Contra Costa sheriff's lab. Nor the San Mateo sheriff's forensic unit.
Renewing the review process
"Got dope?" asks the white-<\h>coated woman who opens the locked door to the SFPD crime lab. She's expecting cops bearing drug-filled baggies, to be weighed and tested and filed away until the courtroom beckons. Crime lab chief Martha "Marty" Blake steps out of her windowless office to greet me.
A few months back, Blake and her 18-person team traded overstuffed quarters in the city's central cop shop at Eighth Street and Bryant for expansive new $1.5 million digs out in the asphalt wastes of the Hunters Point shipyard. "I'm getting ready to apply for accreditation, hopefully by next spring," she says, pointing to a file cabinet emblazoned with the ASCLD seal. "We couldn't get accredited in that facility when we were downtown at the Hall of Justice. It was too cramped. There was no way we could guarantee there would never be any chance for any contamination of the evidence when we had four people crammed into a little room trying to look at clothing, for example."
Blake's operation has taken its lumps over the years. In 1994 analyst Allison Lancaster was canned after she was videotaped faking drug tests. Last year Superior Court Judge Dondero slammed the lab's lead DNA expert for "engaging in shortcuts," "performing missteps," and harboring a questionable "degree of bias" against defendants. Defense lawyers like Burt continue to hammer the lab for its lack of credentials.
With her eyeglasses and graying hair Blake looks more like a schoolteacher than a cop. She pulls a xeroxed sheet of paper out of a drawer and eagerly places it in front of me. "We just switched to a new case review process. This is the sort of thing we have to implement for accreditation. Every case we produce has to go through a review by a supervisor," she explains. "This wasn't happening before; a review happened before, but you'd just glance over [the work] and say, 'Hmm, looks good to me,' and initial 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?