Category Archives: Crime Labs

Accessing NC State Crime Laboratory Procedures

The North Carolina State Crime Laboratory has shared its current and archived/historical procedures with IDS, which will facilitate attorney access to these procedures and improves transparency in how evidence is tested and processed in the Lab. Attorneys who need access to the lab procedures in their cases now have several options to locate these procedures.

Current lab procedures are available from the Crime Lab at http://www.ncdoj.gov/About-DOJ/Crime-Lab/ISO-Procedures.aspx.

IDS previously placed many of the archived procedures online at http://www.ncids.com/forensic/labs/labs.asp. However, this IDS online library of archived procedures may have gaps as there are now over 4,000 archived procedures. If you need an archived lab procedure that you cannot find on the IDS website, you can email Sarah Olson at Sarah.R.Olson@nccourts.org for access to the procedures that the Crime Lab shared recently.

Finally, lab procedures may be requested through discovery.

When reading lab procedures in order to better understand how evidence was tested in a case, attorneys should be mindful to refer to the procedures that were in place at the time that the lab tested case evidence.

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NC State Crime Laboratory welcomes new Ombudsman

Sarah Jessica Farber is the new Ombudsman to the NC State Crime Laboratory. As Ombudsman, her job responsibilities include addressing public concerns about the Crime Lab and making recommendations to the Attorney General about any changes needed at the Crime Lab. The Ombudsman serves as a liaison with all criminal justice system actors and is available to defense attorneys who have questions or feedback about the lab. More information about the role of the Ombudsman is available here.

Prior to joining the Crime Lab, Farber served as a magistrate in Wake County. Earlier in her career, she worked as a criminal defense attorney, both with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services and with her own private practice. She can be reached at sfarber@ncdoj.gov.

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Houston in the Blind

Blind studies and procedures are the gold standard of evaluating the quality and reliability of scientific results. Unfortunately, this has long been lacking in forensic science. Fortunately, strides are being made to introduce blind testing to forensics, most notably in the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC).

Currently, forensic scientists are tested periodically on their knowledge and ability through proficiency tests. However, scientists typically are aware they are completing a proficiency test and not case work. This allows for the Hawthorne effect to play a role in the testing, or the phenomena of a person behaving differently when they know they are being observed. Blind testing in forensic science will allow for blind samples to be included with case work in a manner that scientists cannot distinguish between a blind and a real case. This will help distinguish whether or not a laboratory adheres to guidelines and whether best practices are used in a day-to-day setting, as opposed to simply during an anticipated exam.

This article describes the efforts of Dr. Peter Stout, the HFSC’s chief executive officer (and former member of the NC Forensic Science Advisory Board), to implement a “blinds program.” So far, 329 blind samples have been integrated into normal casework in the firearms, toxicology, DNA, fingerprint, and digital forensic sections of the lab. In 2018, the lab plans to grow the program to 800 blind tests per year, or 5 percent of the lab’s workload.

Disguising a blind as a case sample is not a simple task, as the Forensic Magazine article describes. In addition to the challenge of creating a case submission that appears authentic, another particularly challenging aspect has been determining whether the blind samples could be searched in databases like AFIS, NIBIN, and CODIS.

At the HFSC, no errors have yet been reported in the testing of a blind. Use of blind tests will allow the lab to begin reporting error rates and confidence intervals, which will strengthen the testimony of analysts and allow them to answer questions about reliability of their work.

If you’ve made it this far in the post and are still wondering about the title, “Houston, in the blind” refers to a phrase used by astronauts when they aren’t receiving any response from ground control. The phrase indicates that they will continue to communicate, not knowing if ground control is receiving their message. My hope for forensic science is that communications about blind testing will not be “in the blind.”

 

 

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Open Forum with the NC State Crime Laboratory

On Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, the NC State Crime Laboratory and NC Office of Indigent Defense Services will offer a free CLE for criminal defense attorneys and criminal defense investigators. A Forensic Science Manager from each Section of the State Crime Laboratory (including Digital Evidence, DNA Database, Drug Chemistry, Firearm and Tool Mark, Forensic Biology, Latent Evidence, Toxicology, and Trace Evidence) will present an overview of the procedures for testing evidence in her Section of the lab. These presentations will address evidence submission procedures, what type of evidence is tested, what scientific techniques and instruments are used, and reporting/testimony language.

Following these presentations, there will be a panel discussion. The leader of each section will explain evidence preservation and the order of evidence processing. The presenters will discuss proficiency testing, quality control, and the limitations of the testing performed by their section.

In the final session, the speakers will address questions from attorneys. Due to the confidential nature of casework, questions about specific cases will not be answered. Attorneys can schedule a meeting at the State Crime Lab to discuss the case with the analyst. Attorneys may submit questions ahead of time using the registration form or by emailing sarah.r.olson@nccourts.org.

Attorneys receiving CLE credit will be billed $3.50 per credit hour by the NC State Bar. 2.5 hours of general CLE credit is anticipated. Non-attorneys who wish to receive continuing education credit may use this program agenda to apply for their own credit. The program will take place at the NC Judicial Center, 901 Corporate Center Drive, Raleigh, NC (http://www.nccourts.org/Courts/CRS/AOCAdmin/AOCMove/Directions.asp).

Program website: http://www.ncids.com/forensic/resources/oct13.pdf
Program registration is available here: https://goo.gl/forms/cVm3zFSB08fDH6L63

October 13, 2017

8:30-9:00 AM     Sign-in (Coffee and light snack provided)

9:00-10:00 AM   Presentations by each Section of the NC State Crime Laboratory

10:00-11:00 AM Panel Discussion with the NC State Crime Laboratory

11:00-11:30 AM Q&A with the NC State Crime Laboratory

Presenters:

  • Georgana Baxter, Western Regional Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, Drug Chemistry Section
  • Johnathan Dilday, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Advantage Manager/Deputy Assistant Director
  • Ann C. Hamlin, Regional Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, Drug Chemistry Section
  • Joshua Hickman, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, Digital Evidence Section
  • Zach Kallenbach, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, DNA Database Section
  • Frank Wayne Lewallen, Triad Regional Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Supervisor, Drug Chemistry/Toxicology Section
  • Karen W. Morrow, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, Latent Evidence Section
  • Elizabeth Patel, Triad Regional Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager
  • Jennifer L. Remy, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, Physical Evidence Section
  • Timothy Suggs, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager (Quality Manager)
  • Jody H. West, Raleigh Crime Laboratory, Forensic Scientist Manager, Forensic Biology Section

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Language Matters: USDOJ’s Reporting Language and Testimony Guidelines

Forensic scientists are tasked with the job of explaining often complex scientific data to judges, jurors, and attorneys who may have little understanding of the science underlying the forensic analysis in a case.

Revelations in recent years that hair analysts provided testimony that had no scientific validity has highlighted the importance of using correct language to convey information about forensic analysis and its limitations. Several wrongful convictions have been overturned based on faulty testimony about hair evidence and a massive review of hair cases is ongoing.

In an effort to improve expert testimony, the U.S. Department of Justice has released proposed guidelines called the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports. These guidelines, once finalized, will apply to all USDOJ personnel who issue reports or provide expert forensic testimony, and they will probably be viewed as best practices for the entire forensic community. The guidelines are currently accessible at https://justice.gov/dag/forensic-science, with the public comment section running through July 8, 2016.

Attorneys should be aware of these guidelines and be prepared to object to any lab report language or testimony that does not comply. For example, the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports for the Forensic Latent Print Discipline provides the following guidance on what experts cannot say about their evidence: (1) they cannot state that two prints originate from the same source to the absolute exclusion of all other sources; (2) they cannot state that there is any statistical level of certainty attributed to their determination; (3) they cannot testify that their science is infallible. Similarly, for the testing of bodily fluids, analysts may not state or imply that a level of numerical certainty is calculated to support the identification of blood or semen (i.e., they cannot say they are 95 per cent confident that the stain contained blood or there is a one in a hundred chance that the stain was something other than semen) and may not state or imply that the methods used in performing serological examinations have error rates of zero or that they are infallible. For drug analysis, the guidelines specify that when no sampling plan was used and no reasonable assumption of homogeneity of an item was determined, the examiner may not report or state an opinion that the conclusions apply to the entirety of an item (or a percentage of the item). This limitation is important in pill cases where only one pill is tested.

So, if you have any suggestions about appropriate limitations for expert testimony, or the language they should use in reports, please take the time to provide feedback on these documents.

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Crime Laboratory Essentials Webinar

Take a tour inside a state-operated crime lab with Professor Carol Henderson, Director of Stetson’s National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology, and the Law (NCSTL); Ann Talbot, the director of the Metro Nashville, Police Department Crime Laboratory; and Christine Funk, a criminal defense attorney with over 20 years of practice experience.

Crime Laboratory Essentials is a webinar provided by the Capital Litigation Initiative: Crime Scene to Courtroom Forensics Training series funded by the US Department of Justice. This seminar follows all the steps of forensic analysis for the five core disciplines of Forensic Science: latent fingerprint analysis, firearms, forensic biology (DNA analysis), drug identification, and toxicology. The free archived version of the webinar is available via the link above.

Using evidence from a mock crime to show the lab procedures and machinery used, this webinar takes you step by step through how each of these five sorts of evidence is tested. The panelists also provide additional information about each of the techniques by responding to questions from the audience. If you have a question about how a lab operates, from chain of custody, to testing, to post-trial evidence storage, this webinar has answers.

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New Research on “Touch” DNA

As the sensitivity of DNA analysis increases, scientists are able to develop profiles from ever-smaller samples of DNA. This has lead to testing of a wider array of samples collected from crime scenes, including window panes, bullets, hats and other clothing, cigarette butts, and many other items.

Attorneys sometimes ask me about the likelihood of obtaining a useful DNA profile from certain items of evidence. A study from six European forensic laboratories may give some idea of how likely it is to find a DNA profile on items commonly found at crime scenes. This article contains an interesting chart that lists the item and the likelihood of finding a full profile, usable partial profile, possibly usable partial profile, or no profile. It seems best to use this type of information as a rough guide, but it is interesting nonetheless.

It is important to keep in mind that as labs are able to analyze smaller amounts of DNA, the possibility of developing partial profiles and complex DNA mixtures increases. Where very small amounts of DNA are involved, the sample may have been deposited by secondary transfer. Here’s an interesting article on secondary transfer and “touch” DNA.

Attorneys should be aware that forensic laboratories may have case submission guidelines that limit the number and type of items that may be tested by the lab. To understand why and how an item was tested (or not), it is important to read the lab’s policies and guidelines. Here is a link to the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s Evidence Guide. There is information about Touch DNA testing on p. 52.

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