Here is a 3-minute video that explains the basics of DNA’s form and function. It’s part of the BBC’s online Explainer documentary series. Though the focus of this short animated film is not forensic DNA analysis, it gives important information that attorneys or jurors need to understand before attempting to understand forensic DNA analysis. Attorneys should watch the video for their own information and also to think about whether this information is being communicated effectively to jurors by DNA experts.
Author Archives: Sarah Rackley Olson
For those of you who have been tracking the provision in the Forensic Sciences Act of 2011 that requires local crime labs to become accredited, a bill has been introduced to extend the time for local crime labs to become accredited to July 1, 2020. Below are links to the relevant legislation:
Forensic Sciences Act – Signed into law by Governor Beverly Perdue on March 31, 2011. Sections 1-5 and 7-11 are effective when the act became law. Section 6 (Ombudsman position) is effective on July 1, 2011.
- Session Law 2011-307 – Section 9 of this law extends the time for local forensic science labs (other than the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory) to become accredited to October 1, 2012.
- Session Law 2012-168 – Section 6 of this law extends the time for local forensic science labs (other than the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory) to become accredited from October 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013. Section 6.1 clarifies which State Crime Laboratory employees are required to become certified.
- Senate Bill 200 – this bill extends the time for local forensic science labs (other than the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory) to become accredited from July 1, 2013 to July 1, 2020. Introduced March 5, 2013.
Lab accreditation is important because it requires labs to have and follow a set of written procedures. Accredited labs must have quality assurance procedures in place and a plan for addressing problems that may arise in a lab, including contamination, unexpected results, or analyst failure to comply with the written procedures. Though problems can still occur in an accredited lab, accreditation is an important step in ensuring valid results.
North Carolina is not the only state working to ensure that all forensic laboratories become accredited. This article describes a bill in Minnesota that would require all forensic laboratories to become accredited in the wake of a major lab scandal related to drug analysis in the unaccredited St. Paul police crime lab. Minnesota legislators are considering requiring that labs apply for accreditation by a certain deadline and complete the accreditation process by a later deadline. This change would address the backlog of labs waiting to be inspected and accredited by the limited number of accrediting bodies.
More information about the lab accreditation and analyst certification process is available in this 3-part series on accreditation and certification:
Professor David A. Harris of the University of Pittsburgh has published an interesting book entitled Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science. His 2012 book looks at problems with the traditional investigative tools in order to understand why wrongful convictions occur. Harris asks why law enforcement and prosecutors are resistant to changing the techniques they have long relied on, including interrogations and eyewitness identifications. He describes techniques that scientists use to ensure valid results and discusses how they could be applied to forensic examinations and why law enforcement resists applying techniques like blind verification and proficiency testing.
Because this book examines the barriers to adopting new techniques, it is important for anyone working to improve forensic practices. The first chapter can be downloaded for free here. Professor Harris also has a blog where he posts regularly on issues related to forensic evidence, wrongful convictions, and improving police practices.
On nearly the four year anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report which sharply criticized the forensic science system in the United States, the federal government announced the establishment of a National Commission on Forensic Science.
The NAS Report recommended an overhaul of the current forensic system, including urging the establishment of a independent federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced Friday that they will create a national commission to strengthen and enhance the practice of forensic science.
Justice Department and NIST officials will lead the new 30-member commission. Among its members will be forensic scientists, researchers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. Interested stakeholders can apply for appointment to the commission following an announcement of membership criteria in an upcoming Federal Register notice.
Groups of forensic science practitioners and academic researchers administered by NIST will develop discipline-specific practice guidance for federal, state and local forensic science laboratories. The commission will consider these practices and develop policy recommendations for the Attorney General. The commission’s work will help standardize national guidance for forensic science practitioners, develop uniform codes for professional responsibility, and establish requirements for training and certification.
According to a Washington Post article, experts have said NIST-administered guidance groups could replace the ad hoc groups of practitioners who currently establish the practices for each field of forensic evidence. These ad hoc groups have been criticized for not following standard practices, working in secret, and being too closely tied to law enforcement. Critics have said that these weaknesses result in inconsistency in the techniques used by individual crime labs and differences in how forensic examiners testify about results.
For more information, see these links:
- U.S. to commit scientists and new commission to fix forensic science, by Spencer S. Hsu, The Washington Post, 2/15/2013
- Department of Justice and National Institute of Standards and Technology Announce Launch of National Commission on Forensic Science, DOJ News Release, 2/15/2013
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences Supports New National Commission on Forensic Science, AAFS News Release, 2/15/2013
- Four Years On, No Action on NAS Forensic Science Report; Across the Nation, Crime Lab Scandals Abound, NACDL News Release, 2/15/2013
This infographic is a good reminder that scientists aren’t immune from pressures to exaggerate results and present false research. Anyone working on cases involving expert testimony or complex scientific evidence should keep this in mind when considering what evidence to present or what evidence to challenge.
This infographic was created by the folks at Clinical Psychology.
Many readers are probably aware of the scandal unfolding in the Massachusetts State Police lab, where chemist Annie Dookhan has been charged with obstructing justice by falsifying data in criminal cases and lying under oath about her qualifications. Dookhan was responsible for testing substances that were suspected to be drugs. An October 9, 2012 article in the journal Nature reports that she guessed at the composition of the samples instead of testing them, she recorded positive results in some cases where the samples tested negative, and she contaminated some samples after the fact so that they would match her guesses, if tested.
The investigation of this lab scandal has revealed a large backlog of cases, and the journal Nature reports that forensic labs across the country are under pressure to keep up with heavy case loads. According to this article, interviews in a police report on the Massachusetts scandal identify the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts as a key cause of the backlog. The article quotes American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) executive director Ralph Keaton as saying, “They’re spending all their time in the courtroom and not the laboratory. Then the backlog grows.”
ASCLD-LAB, which is headquartered in Garner, NC, accredits the labs run by the Massachusetts State Police. Keaton’s quote doesn’t link Melendez-Diaz to Dookhan’s actions, but the article could be read as implying that Melendez-Diaz may be leading to misconduct to reduce backlogs. Linking the type of misconduct that Dookhan is alleged to have committed to pressure to reduce backlogs overlooks the real question of how such grave misconduct in the lab was allowed to continue, unchecked, for months or years. In a lab of science professionals where there is adequate oversight, misconduct that affects 34,000 criminal cases, including those of 1,100 people in jail, should not occur.
For more information on this lab scandal, click here.
The National Institute of Justice has made available the following reports that address various techniques used in fire investigations. These reports may be useful to attorneys handling cases were arson is alleged. Each report attempts to document best practices for investigating specific aspects of fires.
- Forensic Investigation Techniques for Inspecting Electrical Conductors Involved in Fire – 2012 DOJ publication by Richard J. Roby, Ph.D. and Jamie McAllister, Ph.D. that looks at the physical characteristics of energized and non-energized wires subjected to various types of fire exposures.
- Reducing Uncertainty of Quantifying the Burning Rate of Upholstered Furniture – 2012 DOJ publication by Marc L. Janssens that investigates how to estimate the burning rate of upholstered furniture and how to express the uncertainty of this prediction.
- Spontaneous Ignition in Fire Investigation – 2012 DOJ publication by James G. Quintiere, Justin T. Warden, Stephen M. Tamburello, and Thomas E. Minnich that addresses the principles of spontaneous ignition and its potential role as the cause and origin of a fire.
- Thermal Properties Database – 2012 DOJ publication by Arnaud Trouve’ and Thomas Minnich. This publication explains the Burning Item Database which describes the burning characteristics of common household and office items.
The Impression & Pattern Evidence Symposium is taking place today through Thursday, August 9, 2012. The live program, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Justice Programs and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory Division, is being streamed online here.
The agenda is available here. Topics include the latest developments and challenges to fingerprint, firearm, document, tiremark, bloodstain pattern and other types of pattern and impression evidence as well as context bias, calculation of error rate, documenting through bench notes, outsourcing lab analysis, and the way to present degree of certainty.
The entire program is available for free online streaming, so sign up and watch the sessions that are of interest to you!
HB 950 (S.L. 2012-142) adds requirements for remitting costs in criminal cases where a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty or nolo contendere, including the $600.00 lab fee that is assessed where there has been DNA analysis, toxicology, or drug analysis performed at the State Crime Lab or a local crime lab.
Previously, lab fees for services performed by the North Carolina State Crime or a local crime lab facility could be waived or reduced by the court making a finding of just cause to grant such a waiver or reduction. This law adds the following language to G.S. 7A-304(a), requiring findings of fact and conclusions of law to support a finding of just cause: “Only upon entry of a written order, supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining that there is just cause, the court may (i) waive costs assessed under this section or (ii) waive or reduce costs assessed under subdivisions (7) or (8) of this section.” (Subdivisions (7) and (8) are the $600.00 lab fee provisions.)
The law also amends G.S. 7A-38.7(a) to require findings of fact and conclusions of law supporting a finding of just cause to waive or reduce fees associated with mediation: “The court may waive or reduce a fee assessed under this section only upon entry of a written order, supported by findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining there is just cause to grant the waiver or reduction.”
These changes become effective July 1, 2012, and apply to fees waived on or after that date.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is presenting a two-day conference which will address the techniques used in firearm and toolmark comparisons, the standards for this discipline, and efforts to apply more objective and quantitative measurment based techniques to this type of analysis.
This conference is being broadcast live online on July 10-11, 2012 and can be viewed here. Speakers will discuss many of the criticisms of the field of firearm and toolmark analysis that were raised in the 2009 NAS Report. Presenters are addressing what measurements can be made, standards for comparison, and what information should go in the notes section of lab reports. There is also a simultaneous transcription of the conference being produced.
There are speakers from SWGGUN, AFTE, NIST and the FBI and ATF Laboratories, as well as private labs. The conference agenda is available here. Online viewers can ask questions of the speakers using Twitter.