Thousands of cases compromised due to faulty forensic analysis

In recent months, faulty forensic analysis has been exposed in several labs across the country. The failure of a handful of lab analysts to correctly perform forensic analysis has compromised thousands of cases. In each situation the failures are different, but they expose a lack of oversight of analyst performance in the affected labs. The following are several of the most serious failures:

Annie Dookhan

A Massachusetts chemist was accused of faking test results at the state lab and tampering with drug evidence while she tested suspected controlled substances in criminal cases. Authorities declared that Dookhan tested more than 60,000 samples involving 34,000 defendants during her nine years at the Department of Public Health lab. Over 200 convicted defendants have been released from custody while their cases are being reviewed due to Dookhan’s involvement, according to this article. One of the red flags that lead to Dookhan’s misconduct being detected was the fact that she was highly efficient at her job; she was handling an astounding number of samples compared to an average chemist. Investigators allege that Dookhan was able to accelerate her work by “dry labbing” or reporting results for analyses that she did not actually perform. Dookhan has been indicted on 27 charges, including 17 counts of obstruction of justice, eight counts of tampering with evidence, perjury and falsely testifying that she held a degree from a college or university.

Sonja Farak

Another Massachusetts chemist that worked in the state crime lab in Amherst was arrested in January and charged with evidence tampering and possession of controlled substances from the lab, according to this article. The Boston Globe reported that Farak was discovered when her supervisors were making a routine check of tested substances and found that certain substances tested by Farak had been replaced with counterfeit substances. Attorney General Martha Coakley said that both Farak and Dookhan had begun their career at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain. Unlike in Dookhan’s case, supervisors noticed that Farak had had a drop in her productivity. Authorities have stated said that Farak’s misconduct was quickly detected by her supervisors, limiting the scope of its impact.

Jonathan Salvador

A forensic scientist who worked as a controlled substances analyst at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) was suspended when it was discovered that he issued a fraudulent report about a batch of pills, according to this post in the Grits for Breakfast blog. The report was issued without testing the pills and instead, substituted data from another sample. The DPS characterized Salvador’s work as deficient prior to this incident. Case supervisors were aware of Salvador’s poor performance and knew that he appeared not to understand the science of the work he was assigned. However, his performance was tolerated and he would often volunteer for unwanted tasks in the lab. In its internal investigation, the DPS found several additional cases where Salvador misreported results. According to Grits for Breakfast “hundreds of convicted defendants may end up having their cases overturned, either freeing them from prison or ending their probation terms.” It was reported that hundreds of samples tested by Salvador during his six years at the DPS were being retested.

Iowa analyst fired over mishandling of fingerprint evidence

A state police crime lab analyst in Iowa was fired in January due to errors in reports related to fingerprint analysis, according to this article. The lab reviewed the analyst’s 2012 cases and found at least nine cases contained errors where the analyst had incorrectly classified fingerprint evidence as unusable. The analyst’s errors were discovered in a routine internal review of cases. The investigation of the analyst’s casework continues. The analyst had been employed by the lab for sixteen years.

Mishandling of DNA Evidence in Rape Cases

The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office is reviewing over 800 cases worked by a lab technician who resigned in 2011. According to this New York Times article, reviewers have found so far that the technician failed to detect biological evidence in 26 cases when in fact existed. Additionally, in 55 cases, the lab technician failed to upload evidence from crime scenes into the state’s DNA database. The mishandling of DNA evidence led sex-crime investigators to not have available evidence that was could have been used to develop cases against rape suspects.  Supervisors also discovered sixteen pieces of evidence that had been placed in the wrong rape kits. The majority of the misplaced items were swabs sealed in paper envelopes.  This mixing of items from different cases raises concerns about cross-contamination and whether other lab protocols were ignored.

Additional cases of lab analyst misconduct are detailed in this NACDL News Release.

In sum, it is important for the attorneys to be aware of the risks of not reviewing the lab reports, including the underlying data, in all of their cases. Although the majority of labs endeavor to monitor the work of individual analysts through case reviews, the cases above indicate that supervision cannot completely deter deficient performance by individual analysts.

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Filed under Crime Labs, DNA, Drug Analysis/Toxicology

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