Friday, May 6, 2016

Anne Dookhan; Sonja Farak; Jonathan Salvador: Pacific Standard asks "How Can America Fix Its Crime Labs?" ..."So what is the solution? It’s nearly impossible to eliminate misconduct entirely, but, for starters, the justice system could stop encouraging it. A 2013 study in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics reported that many crime labs receive funding explicitly from convictions. “In at least 14 states, state law requires that public crime labs be funded in part through court-assessed fees payable by the defendant upon conviction,” the authors write. “In effect, then, the crime lab gets a kind of bonus for each conviction.” Such policies can incentivize convictions for lab technicians, without any regard for whether they’re convicting the right person — an imbalance that could lead to false convictions."

COMMENTARY: "How Can America Fix Its Crime Labs?" by Kate Wheeling (Associate Editor of   Pacific Standard) published by Pacific Standard  on May 6, 2016. (Pacific Standard, formerly Miller-McCune, is an American magazine, published bimonthly in print and continuously online by the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, headquartered in Santa Barbara, California.)

SUB-HEADING: "Scandals have plagued crime labs across the country. What can be done to prevent the next one?"

GIST: "How does a drug addict steal from a state-run lab for nearly a decade without anyone noticing? The Farak scandal is unusual, but it is not unique. The Massachusetts District Attorney’s office is still recovering from the case of Annie Dookhan — a chemist currently in jail for tampering with evidence in drug cases. Dookhan handled samples for more than 40,000 cases, and as many as 20,000 convictions may have resulted from her work, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And it’s not just Massachusetts. Crime lab technicians in Montana and California have been accused of stealing pills and cocaine from evidence. And in Houston, Jonathan Salvador, a Department of Public Safety crime lab employee, was let go for fabricating drug tests, and a slew of guilty verdicts were overturned as district attorneys across 30 counties began re-evaluating the evidence in the nearly 5,000 cases Salvador had worked on. The lack of oversight in crime labs, and the pressure to do more with less creates an environment that allows misconduct like Farak’s to go unnoticed. A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences found that, in addition to problems with the accuracy of the forensic sciences themselves, many forensic labs across the country are underfunded and overworked, leading to case backlogs and increasing the risk of errors — like the 400,000 rape kits in evidence rooms across the country dating back to the 1980s that have yet to be processed for lack of resources, many of which could contain enough evidence to convict rapists. The lack of oversight in crime labs, and the pressure to do more with less (funding, employees, etc.) creates an environment that allows misconduct like Farak’s and Dookhan’s to go unnoticed. And when these scandals are brought to light, so too are the extensive collateral consequences of forensic misconduct.........Rigorous background checks for all prospective crime lab personnel may have been enough to prevent cases like Dookhan’s, who lied about her credentials. Periodic background checks and drug tests might prevent cases like Farak’s. The Department of Justice announced last year that it would only use evidence that comes from accredited labs — an endorsement that laboratories are operating with a set of best practices and standards. But accreditation is not a panacea. As Frontline reported: The new policy, announced by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates at a meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Sciences, is unlikely to precipitate any immediate or universal overhaul of the nation’s crime labs. It will only directly affect labs contracted by the DOJ that aren’t already accredited — and it will only begin doing so in 2020. Furthermore, the new policy seemingly has a built-in loophole: Prosecutors are required to use accredited labs “when practicable,” a phrase Yates told the commission was not meant to be used loosely, but only when using those labs would cause great delay or excessive cost. In addition, accredited labs are not immune to high-profile scandals. .......The damage done by these lab scandals is exacerbated by the public’s inflated trust in forensic science in the courtroom, thanks in large part to popular crime lab procedurals on television today like NCIS. There is no official estimate yet on the number of cases that Farak may have tainted, but it could be as many as 10,000, the Boston Globe reports. The district attorneys’ office must now begin the hard work of identifying and re-evaluating each individual case."

The entire commentary can be found at:


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