If you have been following the AZDUI blog, you’re aware of an August 21, 2013, Superior Court ruling that ordered the suppression of eleven defendants’ blood results from felony DUI cases. On November 20, 2013, the Arizona Court of Appeals heard an Oral Argument to determine if it should accept jurisdiction of the State’s appeal on this decision. Recent media reports have further educated the public and increased scrutiny over forensic science in Scottsdale, due mainly to its procedures and equipment. However, this is not an isolated incident in the criminal justice field. Increasingly, labs across the country are being examined not only for the practices they employ but also for the human factor: Who are the people in these labs running all sorts of tests? What are their qualifications? They’re scientists, but are they capable of producing trustworthy results?
Cracks in the System
Last week, Annie Dookhan, a drug analyst at the Hinton laboratory in Massachusetts, was sentenced to serve three to five years in a state prison for tampering with evidence. Dookhan had been suspected of faking test results and intentionally contaminating and padding suspected drug samples, among other things. Dookhan admitted that she had filed false reports and had also lied when asked about her education and experience in the field. (Check out The Boston Globe’s full article).
Another lab, in St. Paul, Minnesota, was investigated when public defenders questioned the reliability of the results it was producing. One of the public defenders wanted to meet with the analyst who had tested the substance her client had been accused of possessing. An investigation revealed that the lab was being run by a police sergeant with no scientific qualifications, had no written methods, didn’t clean the machines used for testing, and did not restrict access to the drug vault.
The American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), attempts to counter and prevent these problems by “inspecting” and “accrediting” labs. In the ABA Journal’s recent article “Crime Labs Under the Microscope After a String of Shoddy, Suspect and Fraudulent Results”, author Mark Hansen discusses the way that a lab can obtain accreditation, the “stamp of approval” that declares a lab is using sound methods. Specifically, ASCLD examines the hiring practices and written procedures that a lab uses, then practically assesses the lab by reviewing five of the lab’s tests (which are selected by the lab, itself). When accredited, a lab is then deemed to be producing scientifically reliable results and must only be reassessed once every five years. The article notes, however, that “ASCLD/LAB could more properly be described as a product service organization…which sells for a fee a ‘seal of approval,’” and notes that once accredited, labs are rarely, if ever, put on probation or suspended.
This accreditation could certainly have unearthed a glaring issue, such as the St. Paul lab’s lack of any written procedures, but what could accreditation do about someone like Dookhan? Based on information, ASLCD only reviews a handful of cases and puts any lab on notice that they are being audited. Someone knowingly, recklessly, or negligently violating lab procedures is hardly likely to voluntarily admit to doing so when the result could be getting fired or costing the government guilty convictions. And how could accreditation fix the 40,000+ cases that Dookhan worked on since 2003 that now have to be reviewed, already costing taxpayers $8.5 million and an estimated $8.6 million more?
“Accreditation” cannot counteract or prevent faulty or negligent human decision-making. Accreditation can only say “the guidelines that this lab is supposed to abide by are approved for use within the scientific community” at a given moment in time; whether those labs are adhering to these standards on a routine basis is the real question. The National Academy of Sciences, the group responsible for advising the federal government on scientific and technical issues, declared in a 2009 report: “The forensic science system, encompassing both research and practice, has serious problems that can only by addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community in this country.” One such problem that may be hardest to find a solution for is the interwoven nature of police, prosecution, and crime labs. “Most labs operate under the auspices of law enforcement agencies, making them susceptible to pressures—overt and otherwise—to produce the kinds of results that police and prosecutors are looking for.”
Based on recent litigation and scrutiny, Scottsdale is finally being forced to address the same concerns of the judge who issued the August ruling. The machine that is the subject of litigation has not been used to test case samples since the judge’s decision and lab hierarchy has also undergone specific restructuring. Hopefully this is the beginning of modernizing the application of headspace gas chromatography in Scottsdale; its citizens (and those criminally charged within city limits) deserve the best forensic science has to offer.