DNA Testing: Only As Good As The Laboratory
DNA has become a universally acknowledged crime fighting tool, capable of conclusively proving guilt or innocence. Indeed, it is often referred
to as “the gold standard”. Those who are familiar with my own story know that, but for DNA, I would still be in prison for a murder and a rape
that I was totally innocent of. But, the reliability of DNA is dependent on a variety of factors that the average person may not be fully aware of.
Firstly, the evidence containing DNA must have been properly preserved. The tests must be performed while using all of the correct protocols
and procedures, taking care that no contamination takes place either during the testing or during the preservation process. Of equal importance
are the individuals who work in the labs where DNA is tested. They are supposed to be scientists who are objective and dedicated to the truth.
There is no excuse for those who must obtain results that law enforcement needs in order to prove someone’s guilt. Unfortunately the above
standards are not always met, and the resulting fallout can be frightening. The following information was taken from e Houston Metro regarding
the crime lab in that city: “Michael Browich a former U.S. Justice Department inspector appointed two years ago to oversee an independent investigation of the Houston lab, issued a 400-page report. The report cites hundreds of ‘serious and pervasive’ flaws in forensic cases mishandled by the lab’s DNA and serology sections. He reviewed how evidence was processed in more than 3,500 cases handled by the lab in the past 25 years.
Although the report commends the city’s efforts to rebuild the crime lab over the past two years, it also highlights ‘major issues’ identified in
both DNA and blood-analysis cases handled by the lab from the 1980s to 2002. ‘The crime lab’s substandard, unreliable serology and DNA work is
all the more alarming in light of the fact that it is typically performed in the most serious cases, such as homicides and sexual assaults,’ the report
said. e investigation’s review of 135 sample DNA cases analyzed by the crime lab from 1992 to 2002 identi-fied ‘major issues’ in 43 of them. The
review covered all 18 death penalty cases that involved DNA analysis in that time. It identified major issues in the cases of four death-row inmates.
Bromwich’s report suggested the special master be appointed to review 180 blood-analysis cases from the 1980s and early 1990s involving convicts now in prison. But Houston Mayor Bill White, Police Chief Harold Hurtt and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said Wednesday they saw no need for a special master and that such reviews should be done by the police department, the district attorney’s office
and the courts.”
Further information about the Houston crime lab was published in e New York Times:
“Officials even failed to take proper action when two laboratory analysts were cited for four instances of fabricating scientific evidence, or drylabbing, said the investigator, Michael R. Bromwich, a Washington lawyer and former Justice Department inspector general called in by the city
to conduct the review. The DNA section of the laboratory was shut down in scandal in 2002, but other units continued operating and have been
accredited under new leadership. Wrapping up a 90-day investigation into general management problems going back to 1987, Mr. Bromwich said
he was now preparing a second-phase examining more than 2,000 criminal cases handled over the years by the laboratory’s six sections including DNA and serology, or bodily fluids.
That section is the only Houston unit still shut down, requiring the department to send out its DNA evidence for analysis. Yet to be determined,
the report said, was whether the lapses were ‘isolated breakdowns or only the tip of an iceberg.’ Among cases to be studied were three high-profile convictions, including one for murder, based on faulty laboratory evidence. ‘The findings are extremely troubling,’ said Mr. Bromwich, a partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, in an interview after presenting his report. But he said, ‘Houston is not alone in having this problem.’ As the Justice Department’s top internal watchdog from 1994 to 1999, he exposed sloppy work and false testimony by F.B.I. laboratory scientists. Other state crime labs have also come under fire.”
But some of the Houston’s report’s language was particularly scathing. By the time a state audit in 2002 confirmed problems exposed by a local television station, KHOU, Mr. Bromwich reported, “the DNA Section was in shambles - plagued by a leaky roof, operating for years without a line supervisor, overseen by a technical leader who had no personal experience performing DNA analysis and who was lacking the qualifications under the F.B.I. standards, staffed by underpaid and under-trained analysts, and generating mistake-ridden and poorly documented casework.”
By 2002, the number of untested rape kits had grown to 19,500, some dating back to 1980, and the backlog is still about 10,000, the report said. Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 flooded the laboratory, and in 33 homicide and rape cases, employees were quoted as reporting, “this biological evidence had become so saturated with water that they observed bloody water dripping out of the boxes containing the evidence and pooling on the floor.”
The problem has not been limited only to Houston. According to an article published in the Seattlepie.com, there have been problems in the Washington State Crime Lab regarding DNA contamination and other errors. The following information is taken from that article. The article
cited 23 examples, I will list only some of them:
When and where: July 2002, Spokane lab;
Forensic scientist: Lisa Turpen; Case: child rape;
What happened: Turpen contaminated one of four vaginal swabs with semen from a positive control sample. Corrected report issued almost two years later in March 2004. ....Yakima prosecutors offered plea deal during the trial, wit defendant pleading guilty to two gross misdemeanors.
Turpen’s mistake was a factor, according to defense.
Problem: Erroneous lab report;
When and where: August 2002, Seattle lab;
Forensic scientist: William Stubbs;
Case: Fatal police shooting of Robert Thomas;
What happened: Two hours before testifying at inquest, Stubbs discovered his crime lab report was wrong and notified prosecutor. His report said test found brown stain on gun was likely blood, but his notes had no indication of blood. ... Corrected report issued in September 2002. ... Co-worker reviewing case did not catch mistake.
When and where: April 2001, Spokane lab
Forensic scientists: Charles Solomon, Lisa Turpen
What happened: In separate tests, Solomon and Turpen contaminated hair-root tests with their own DNA. Solomon also contaminated reference
blood sample with his DNA. ...Three defendants were convicted.
Problem: Testing error
When and where: September 2002, Marysville lab
Forensic scientist: Mike Croteau
What happened: Rushing to meet deadlines, Croteau mixed up reference samples from victim and suspect. He reported incorrect findings verbally to prosecutor, then discovered his mistake. ... Defendant pleaded guilty.
When and where: August 2003, Seattle lab
Forensic scientist: Robin Bussoletti
What happened: Bussoletti likely contaminated work surface while testing a blood sample from a convicted felon during training. Next DNA analyst who used work station noticed contamination in chemical solution that is not supposed to contain DNA.
When and where: January 2004, Tacoma lab;
Forensic scientist: Jeremy Sanderson;
Case: child rape;
What happened: Sanderson failed to change gloves between handling evidence in two cases. He noticed contamination in chemical solution.
... Defendant convicted and sent to prison.
Problem: Error during testing;
When and where: June 2002, Seattle lab;
Forensic scientist: Denise Olson;
Case: aggravated murder; What happened: Olson did initial test to look for blood on shoes. She got weak positive result, then threw out swabs. She didn’t document findings or notify police. Kirkland police complained because discarded swabs couldn’t be tested for DNA. ... Shoes sent to private lab for retesting. ... Defendant Kim Mason convicted and sentenced to life without release.
Problem: Error in DNA test interpretation;
When and where: October 1998, Seattle lab;
Forensic scientist: George Chan;
What happened: Chan misstated statistical likelihood of match with suspect. Co-worker reviewing case didn’t catch error. ... Pierce County prosecutor noticed mistake at pretrial conference in September 2000. ... Defendant convicted.
Problem: Error in testing procedure;
When and where: September 2002, Seattle lab;
Forensic scientist: Denise Olson;
Case: robbery/assault What happened: Olson tested known DNA samples before evidence collected at crime scene -- a violation of lab procedure
aimed at preventing cross-contamination. A co-worker caught the mistake while reviewing the case.... Tests were redone. ... Defendant pleaded guilty.
When and where: November 2002, Tacoma lab;
Forensic scientist: Mike Dornan;
Case: rape What happened: Dornan contaminated DNA test of victim’s underwear with his own DNA. May have resulted from talking during testing process.... Defendant pleaded guilty.
Problem: Unknown source of contamination;
When and where: January 2004, Tacoma lab;
Forensic scientist: Christopher Sewell;
What happened: Sewell found low level of DNA from unknown source in blood sample from victim. May have come from blood transfusion
of victim before death. ... Case pending.
When and where: March 2004, Tacoma lab;
Forensic scientist: William Dean;
What happened: Dean contaminated control sample with his own DNA while testing police evidence. ... No suspect. According to The Boston Globe: “The civilian head of the crime lab resigned under pressure, and the administrator of the lab’s DNA database Robert Pino was fired after
he was suspended for allegedly mishandling CODIS test results, including 13 cases in which he did not tell law enforcement officials about positive DNA matches in unsolved sexual assault cases until after the statute of limitations had expired. Also last year, the state’s top forensics official,
who supervised the crime lab and the troubled state medical examiner’s of-fice, resigned.”
The following information was taken from The Detroit News: “Criminal justice officials are struggling to calculate the impact of an audit released Thursday that exposed rampant problems in the Detroit Police firearms laboratory and resulted in the shutdown of the department’s entire crime lab. The Michigan State Police audit of the city’s gun lab, which began in June after firearms evidence was found to be tainted, revealed a systemic problem that calls into question all forensic evidence handled in the city’s police laboratory over the past several years, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said.
‘This opens a huge can of worms,’ Worthy said. ‘If the quality system is failing in one forensic discipline, it is highly likely to be an indicator of a severe problem that affects other forensic disciplines as well.’ University of Michigan law professor David A. Moran, who saw the audit, said a ‘decent lab’ would have an error rate almost 10 times less than what auditors found in Detroit. ‘When you’re dealing with human beings, you can expect some errors,’ Moran said. ‘But a decent lab would have an error rate of under one percent. A 10 percent rate is absolutely shocking.’
The problems mean there potentially could be people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit -- and there also could be dangerous criminals on the loose, Worthy said. ‘We have no idea how many criminals have gone uncharged as a result of the problems in the crime lab,’ she said. Detroit Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. decided to shut down the department’s entire crime lab, which also handles DNA and blood analysis, fingerprinting and
drug evidence, after seeing the audit’s results.”