Forensic Lab Problems Cry Out for More Oversight and Quality Standards

Forensic Lab Problems Cry Out for More Oversight and Quality Standards
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A spate of recent news reports has called into question the objectivity of some forensic evidence and highlighted the need for effective oversight mechanisms for the nation's crime labs. Fingerprint analysts told The Missouri Lawyer that when police officers have access to the labs, they often pressure the fingerprint examiners to secure arrests. In December, the New York State Inspector General released a report revealing that forensic analyst Gary Veeder falsified hundreds of results over a fifteen year period. The Phoenix, Arizona Police Department announced plans to investigate claims that lab technicians in the crime lab undermine the integrity of criminal investigations by leaving evidence behind at scenes and disposing of fingerprint evidence. In December, Donald Gates walked free from prison after his exoneration for a rape and murder he did not commit when it was revealed that FBI lab technician Michael Malone provided false testimony and inaccurate testing results.

Forensic lab accreditation through organizations such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) is an important first step that all labs should undertake. However, the New York lab at which Gary Veeder worked was accredited by ASCLD/LAB, and yet it took over fifteen years and hundreds of result falsifications for Veeder's problematic work to be discovered. As ASCLD/LAB itself acknowledges, accreditation is only part of a "laboratory's quality assurance program". Some states are beginning to recognize the need to augment private accreditation with more ongoing oversight and additional quality standards in order to ensure that only accurate and reliable forensic evidence is utilized in criminal proceedings.

The Justice Project's policy review, Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science, outlines several steps states should take, including creation of an independent oversight commission to more closely supervise the work of forensic science laboratories. This commission would set statewide quality standards for all labs and would provide more rigorous, ongoing oversight of forensic testing to ensure that labs operate in a way that is consistent with the highest scientific standards. The commission would also adopt standards and regulations regarding the training and certification of all lab employees and safeguards against inadvertent bias in forensic analysis. These safeguards will help to ensure the objectivity and reliability of forensic testing and analysis.

When held to stringent, scientific standards forensic evidence can be a powerful tool for seeking justice. However, until our forensic oversight goes beyond accreditation, forensic evidence will continue to be mishandled, and jurors will be prevented from hearing reliable evidence. Placing forensic labs under the purview of an independent oversight commission will increase the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system and help ensure that fewer wrongful convictions occur because of shoddy forensic work. We must implement appropriate oversight and safeguards to prevent innocent defendants from convictions based on flawed forensics.

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