In the latest twist in the protracted Massachusetts drug lab scandal, it was reported earlier this year that District Attorney Rachael Rollins had ordered a new inquiry into more than 74,000 cases. The scale of the audit is unprecedented, even as more than 20,000 criminal convictions have already been reversed, at a cost of about $30 million.
Such systemic problems are the entirely predictable result of inadequate resources at crime labs nationwide. Amid a national conversation over where to best allocate law enforcement dollars, we call for a critical look at redirecting funding to other agencies in the criminal justice system that are often forgotten and overlooked—namely, crime labs. Critically, those labs must have sound quality control and adequate resources and must be independent of law enforcement.
Today, key aspects of crime-solving often involve carefully collecting minute pieces of evidence at a crime scene. The most serious crimes tend to be the most forensic-dependent. In the DNA age, careful crime scene work demands donning gloves and masks and taking extra precautions to prevent contamination that can occur with a stray breath. Yet far too often we have overtaxed and undertrained police officers struggling to appropriately collect and analyze evidence.
Take the case of Joe Bryan in Clifton, Texas. At two trials in 1986 and 1989, he was convicted of his wife’s murder and served 30 years in prison based on blood spatter evidence from a crime scene contaminated by poorly trained police and analyzed by a rookie officer who entered the scene after 10 hours of foot traffic and the removal of the victim’s body by private funeral home employees. It was the first analysis ever done by the officer, who had taken a single 40-hour course in blood pattern analysis. Yet at trial he made uncannily precise statements about the direction, angle, and distance of a flashlight supposedly held by the shooter that was spattered with blood. Years later, the Texas Forensic Science Commission determined his work was “unreliable” and “scientifically unsupportable.” Bryan was released last year, but his conviction hasn’t been overturned.
Or consider the case of George Rodriguez, who maintained that he was innocent of kidnapping and rape charges at a 1987 trial in Houston, Texas. He was convicted, based in part on testimony by a police examiner at what was then the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, who said crime scene hair had been “microscopically identified” as “consistent with” Rodriguez’s hair and blood typing, which proved an alternative suspect could not have committed the offense.
After 17 years in prison, Rodriguez’s conviction was overturned on the basis of DNA testing that excluded him and “hit” on an alternative suspect, and he was awarded $5 million by a federal jury. As part of the fallout, the lab was audited and shut down, and a 2003 New York Times story questioned if it was the “worst crime lab in the country.”
This case served as an impetus for the city of Houston, with the full support of its police department, to make the laboratory an independent agency overseen by a citizen board. That new setup was responsive to recommendations made in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences, which called for independence and scientific leadership of labs. The Houston Forensic Science Center is now lauded as one of the nation’s best, with a budget overseen by an independent board of directors and allocated based on scientific needs. Quality control measures have been independently adopted, top to bottom. The lab is held accountable not only by police, but also by prosecutors, defense attorneys, and, most importantly, the community it serves.
These are not isolated cases. The database Convicting the Innocent, which tracks the role forensics played in cases of people exonerated by DNA, shows that more than half of those 300-plus exonerees, who spent an average of 14 years in prison, were convicted based on flawed forensics.
After a decade of national reports detailing problems with forensics, funding is still laughably small: Less than $200 million in federal grant dollars are available annually to be shared by over 400 public crime labs. Three-quarters of that is designated for DNA analysis, contributing to massive backlogs in other disciplines affecting far more cases. It is the attempt to do forensics cheaply that leads to inadequately staffed and regulated crime labs, which inevitably implode with tragic results, affecting tens of thousands of people. In Massachusetts, it will take years to unravel the scope of such systemic errors.
If the criminal justice system is to work properly, it needs access to science that is best supported in well-funded, independent, and scientist-led and -driven crime laboratories. Sound science and justice both demand accurate evidence, which means getting forensics right. And getting forensics right demands reform accountability for our labs, independence, and adequate funding.