San Francisco's top public defender, Jeff Adachi, recently called for the city's crime lab to become independent of the police department. This announcement comes on the heels of a series of scandals in the San Francisco Police Department's forensic laboratory initiated by the discovery that a criminalist was stealing cocaine from evidence storage facilities. What initially seemed to be a problem with one unethical employee has led to the unearthing of myriad problems within the lab, including two cases of tainted DNA samples. Moreover, a troubling audit was released showing an improper maintenance of chain of custody of evidence, inadequate record keeping, and a lack of cleanliness in the overall facility. Multiple legal challenges raised in the aftermath of the scandal, including a murder case, have pointed to the possibility that police and prosecutors withheld vital information about the drug thefts from defendants' attorneys.
Adachi is right to push for an independent crime lab. The majority of publicly operated crime labs are part of a law enforcement agency. As a result, crime lab employees may come to see themselves as part of a crime fighting team, rather than objective agents of science. Given that many forensic examinations involve subjective interpretations of data, the risk for bias is greater when the lab is structurally part of law enforcement. Independent crime labs help to ensure that analysts operate an impartial environment to ensure accurate, unbiased and reliable testing. The National Academies of Science recognized these concerns when they recently recommended that laboratories become independent of law enforcement agencies.
Independence alone, however, will not guarantee objective, reliable science. Substantive and consistent oversight plays a key role in ensuring that crime labs maintain high standards of accuracy, reliability, and objectivity. Each state has a compelling interest in maintaining stringent scientific standards, and relying on private accreditation programs with infrequent site reviews does not provide the level of oversight necessary when so much is at stake.
Heightened oversight of forensic laboratories is one of the most important recommendations The Justice Project makes in its policy review, Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science. States need an independent oversight commission for forensic crime labs that can set and enforce quality standards and provide more rigorous, ongoing oversight of forensic testing to ensure that the labs operates with the highest scientific standards. Such a commission could ensure that all lab employees have the proper training and appropriate professional certifications. Furthermore, the commission could implement safeguards against inadvertent bias in forensic analysis which would promote the objectivity and reliability of forensic testing and analysis.
Given the increasing use and importance of forensic evidence in the criminal justice system, it is imperative that the crime labs function accurately, objectively, and reliably. Both independence and ongoing quality oversight of forensic laboratories will increase the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system and help reduce the risk of wrongful convictions. Forensic science can be a powerful tool. Only by implementing meaningful structural reform will we acknowledge the importance of what is at stake.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.