Crime Labs Botch Tests All the Time. Who’s Supposed To Make Sure They Don’t Screw Up?

Crime Lab
A crime lab scientist handles processed DNA extractions.

Photo by Robert King/Newsmakers

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On Monday, I wrote about two recent high-profile cases in which crime lab technicians mishandled forensic evidence, throwing convictions into doubt and serving up a stark reminder that high-tech procedures are still subject to human error. There’s a huge gap between the public perception of how a crime lab works and the real thing. Television would have us believe that most forensic analysts are sassy, in-your-face geniuses who never make mistakes. In reality, as the blog The Truth About Forensic Science puts it, many state and local labs are staffed by “non-technical lay people who repeat a process.”

In one of these incidents, the New York Times reports that a New York City DNA technician’s “[s]upervisors have so far found 26 cases in which the technician failed to detect biological evidence when some actually existed.” The technician’s mistakes, which have led the medical examiner’s office to reassess more than 800 rape cases, were only discovered when she applied for a promotion and her body of work was reviewed.

I mentioned in my earlier post that there aren’t any national standards for crime labs, which means quality control can vary. Accreditation is voluntary, and many states do not require it; each jurisdiction decides how to certify and administer its labs and vet its technicians. Many places rely on the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), America’s primary certifying body for crime labs, which is the closest thing we’ve got to a national repository of forensic standards and practices. The NYC medical examiner’s office, for one, is accredited by ASCLD/LAB. “It’s kind of the gold standard around the world for forensic accreditation,” says Ralph Keaton, ASCLD/LAB’s executive director.

According to its website, ASCLD/LAB has four main objectives:

1. To improve the quality of laboratory services provided to the criminal justice system.

2. To adopt, develop, and maintain criteria which may be used by a laboratory to assess its level of performance and to strengthen its operation.

3. To provide an independent, impartial, and objective system by which laboratories can benefit from a total operational review.

4. To offer to the general public and to users of laboratory services a means of identifying those laboratories which have demonstrated that they meet established standards.

When a lab’s accreditation application is accepted, ASCLD/LAB sends a team to visit that lab, a process that takes the better part of a week. “We review the work of all the analysts to make sure the work is done within the procedures of that lab. We make sure all the personnel had completed their training, that they are regularly proficiency tested,” says Keaton. “We try not to leave any stone unturned.”

The idea behind accreditation, according to Keaton, is to help labs establish a set of best practices that, if followed, will improve performance and minimize error. But there are questions about whether the accreditation process is particularly effective in that regard.

In a 2011 memo to the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, an attorney and commission member named Marvin E. Schechter criticized ASCLD/LAB, noting “a culture of tolerance for errors stemming from a highly forgiving corrections system, some times of major and/or lesser magnitudes, but many of which either violate ASCLD/LAB’s ethics guidelines and/or standards. Laboratory inspections are always on notice to a laboratory rather than by surprise, and instead of inspectors picking the case files for review, this is done by lab technicians.”

Schechter was a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee that produced the 2009 report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States,” which also criticized the lack of strong national standards for laboratory management and administration. His 2011 memo went on to characterize ASCLD/LAB as an organization more interested in protecting its members’ images than in promoting accountability:

In fact ASCLD/LAB could more properly be described as a product service organization which sells for a fee, a “seal of approval,” covering diverse laboratory systems which laboratories can utilize to bolster their credibility through in-court testimony by technicians plus ancillary services such as protection from outside inquiry, shielding of internal activities and where necessary, especially in the event of public condemnation, a spokesperson to buffer the laboratory from media inquiry.

Keaton, ASCLD/LAB’s executive director, disputes that characterization. “You have to put into perspective what Mr. Schechter’s profession is,” he says. “He has a reason for taking the line of attack that he does.” What Keaton is saying, essentially, is that Schechter is a defense attorney, and that attacks on accredited crime labs make it easier to get his clients off the hook.

Regardless, Schechter’s case cannot be easily dismissed. The defense attorney found that, between 2005 to 2011, there had been 50 significant failures at American crime labs; 28 of these occurred at ASCLD/LAB-certified laboratories, including DNA mix-ups and technicians stealing evidentiary cocaine for their personal use. Schechter argued that in these cases, ASCLD/LAB was less interested in holding the culprits accountable than in closing ranks around the labs under scrutiny. (Schechter took particular issue with what he perceived to be ASCLD/LAB’s pro-law enforcement bias.)

“What has to be understood by everyone is there is no profession where human beings are involved where mistakes are not made sometimes,” says Keaton, and he’s not wrong. But it seems obvious to me that, at the very least, there ought to be greater transparency in crime lab operations. Many labs and technicians seem to see forensic analysis as a way to “catch criminals” rather than determine guilt or innocence. Annie Dookhan, the Boston crime lab chemist who mishandled drug evidence over nine years—throwing 1,121 criminal convictions into question—reportedly developed a close personal relationship with one of the attorneys who prosecuted the cases on which she worked. That’s an extreme example of the sort of “we’re on the same team” dynamic between analysts and prosecutors/police that Schechter believes is endemic in crime labs. The risk there is that rigor and accuracy become less important than simply getting the answers you’re looking for.