Last week, the Daubert hearings at the Maricopa County Superior Court came to a close. A decision is expected to come down later this summer. Articles and Valley news coverage have been highlighting the significance of this case, and the serious effects caused by a police-run crime lab not attempting to repair its malfunctioning equipment. (Read the most recent article here: http://www.azcentral.com/community/scottsdale/articles/20130510scottsdale-crime-lab-problems.html)

Law and forensic scienceThe core issue before this court is whether the brand of forensic science practiced at the Scottsdale Crime Lab is accurate and reliable.  For a scientific result to be reliable and trustworthy, multiple parts need to work together.

These are: 1) Product (equipment and materials); 2) People (lab employees); 3) and Procedures (methods and policies).

If any of these parts are compromised, then the ending result may not be reliable. Unfortunately, at the Scottsdale Crime Lab, evidence has begun to indicate that not just one, but all three of these parts are faulty. Here’s why in a nutshell:

1) The equipment and materials have shown serious signs of malfunction for almost four years.2) Lab employees are not informed about the specific procedures they need to follow to be compliant, and are kept in the dark on this important information. 3) Procedures are incomplete, and ignore multiple basic scientific requirements of ISO (the International Organization for Standards).

Unfortunately, because these issues are not openly disclosed, discovering these issues requires below the surface investigation. During trial testimony, information is polished, purged of error, and presented superficially. The machine has not been fixed and serious malfunctions continue to occur, but this information is routinely concealed. It is the lab’s opinion that since problems don’t visibly occur every time the machine is run, there is no problem. The visible issues are dismissed as irrelevant and shoved under the rug. However, the lab purports itself to be compliant with ISO standards. ISO sets global requirements for good scientific practices. Among other things, ISO requires complete documentation, recording of errors, and complying with other strict requirements to make sure that all potential areas for error are identified and managed. Writing a watered-down version of these standards avoids or minimizes portions of these requirements while allowing criminalists to say they are ‘ISO-compliant,’ a misleading statement.

Anyone who has ever taken a test knows that a score of 50/100 doesn’t allow you to throw out all the “wrong answers” and claim a perfect score. But that’s exactly what the Crime Lab attempts to do on the witness stand. Errors, malfunctions, glitches and other mishaps are disregarded. Equipment problems are largely ignored, and errors are “erased” by hitting “re-do.” This arguably does not produce reliable results.

During closing arguments after the Daubert hearing last week, the prosecutor for the State said “[The lab] knows they are accurate.” But after reviewing all the problems, this can’t possibly be true. There are way too many unknowns, and an ever-increasing array of serious problems. Importantly, the burden of proof rests with the State. When charges are brought against a defendant, it’s up to the State to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Part of this requires them to prove the accuracy of the blood test result. They are unable to do so here, and have made little attempt to do so over the 15-day hearing. Instead, they argue that the Defendants themselves should retest their own blood, and challenge the State’s result. This shifts the fundamental burden of proof to the Defendants, a serious and grave threat to a Defendant’s Constitutional rights.

To accept this argument is to entirely trash the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” But in closing, this is what the State requested of the Court. It is up to the Court now to review the facts and argument and issue a ruling. While the issue at hand is the accuracy and reliability of the blood tests, the greater meaning runs a bit deeper and questions the way the legal system treats and addresses those charged with a crime. Excusing laboratory mistakes could potentially deny a Defendant’s right to Due Process.The ruling is expected to address the important issues of scientific accuracy and reliability in forensics, and impact the way science intersects with the law.