By LARRY O'DELL
RICHMOND, Va.- The director of Virginia's crime lab is contacting outside forensic scientists to help re-examine DNA test results in 161 cases following an independent audit that sharply criticized the lab's performance in a high-profile murder case.
Auditors said last week that the Virginia Division of Forensic Science botched DNA testing in the case of former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr., who was pardoned in 2000 after retesting raised serious doubts about his guilt in a 1982 rape and murder. The auditors recommended a broader review to determine whether other cases involving "low level" DNA - amounts at or below normal detection limits - were mishandled.
The review will include some death row cases, possibly including those of men who already have been executed. Virginia ranks second only to Texas with 94 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Twenty-three inmates currently are on death row in Virginia.
Division director Paul Ferrara responded with a plan to review all 41 cases handled by Jeffrey Ban - the examiner who erred in the Washington case - and a sample of three cases from each of the lab's other 40 technicians.
The review will include all low-level DNA death sentence cases. Michele Brace, staff attorney for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, said Tuesday that she did not know how many death row cases will qualify for the review.
Ferrara has refused to speak to reporters since the report was issued Friday.
William Thompson, a lawyer and professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California-Irvine, has reviewed the Virginia crime lab's work in several cases - including Washington's - for journalists and defense lawyers. He said he has seen enough problems with the lab's interpretation of data to cause concern.
"My prediction is the audit will find further difficulty with these low-level cases, and hopefully it will require rethinking their procedures," Thompson said.
Betty Layne DesPortes, a Richmond lawyer who chairs the jurisprudence section of the American Academy of Forensic Science, also doubts the Washington mistake was an isolated incident.
"Often in capital cases, where the investigators are striving for every little bit of evidence they can find - like DNA from a gun handle or duct tape - it's going to be low-count DNA," said DesPortes. "That's when the interpretation becomes difficult, and that's where our skills may be lacking at the lab."
Washington spent more than nine years on death row for the killing of 19-year-old Rebecca Williams and came within nine days of being executed. DNA testing in 1993 cast doubt on Washington's guilt but did not absolutely eliminate him as a suspect. As a result, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison.
He was pardoned by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore in 2000.
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