INNOCENCE: Faulty Practices Raise Doubts About Accuracy of Crime Labs

A recent article in the ABA Journal drew attention to problems in crime labs across the country that have resulted in wrongful convictions, including some in death penalty cases. Investigations in many states and of the national FBI lab revealed a lack of written procedures, improper mixing of samples from different cases, improper testimony, and even falsification of test results. An Oklahoma City chemist who testified in 23 death penalty cases was later fired for giving false or misleading testimony. Twelve of the defendants in whose cases she had testified were executed. In North Carolina, an independent audit by two retired FBI agents showed that analysts at the state lab had regularly withheld or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period, including three cases that resulted in executions. Some experts are pushing for better regulation of forensic labs. The National Academy of Sciences presented 13 recommendations in a 2009 report, including calling for the creation of an independent national institute of forensic science, and enforcement of accreditation and certification standards. Very few of the Academy’s recommendations have been implemented. Paul Giannelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, who has studied crime labs for 20 years, said forensic labs should be held to the same standards as clinical labs that conduct medical tests. “They’re both a matter of life and liberty,” he said.

In 2012, the American Bar Association adopted two resolutions aimed at improving crime labs. The first urged governments to require labs to produce clear reports of their procedures, results, and the qualifications of those who practice in the labs. The second listed factors to consider in determining the validity of expert testimony and how juries should be instructed to evaluate that testimony.

(M. Hansen, “Crime labs under the microscope after a string of shoddy, suspect and fradulent results,” ABA Journal, September 2013; DPIC posted Sept. 9, 2013). See Innocence and Studies.