Errors prompt states to watch over crime labs

Richard Willing

State legislators, troubled by reports of botched DNA tests and other mistakes by forensic analysts, have begun to establish oversight commissions to improve local crime labs and coroner's offices.

Virginia and Texas, where a lab technician mistakenly implicated the wrong man in a rape case, passed laws last year that set up such commissions. Legislators in New Hampshire, Vermont and Minnesota are considering similar plans this spring.

In Illinois, legislators are considering a plan that would require state and private labs to be accredited by a professional crime lab group. Oklahoma has had such a measure in place for three years. In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, revived the state's dormant oversight panel after a pair of eyes critical to a murder investigation were reported missing from a lab in 2002.

Beginning today, the American Judicature Society, a non-partisan policy research group of judges, attorneys and academics, begins a three-day conference in Greensboro, N.C., to establish recommendations for crime lab practices. The conference's co-chairs include former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno and former federal judge and CIA and FBI director William Webster.

Forensic science "is justice's best friend, but it has to not only be used right but done right," says Texas state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill that created Texas' commission. "There needs to be a way to hold the labs accountable."

In Houston, the DNA unit of the city's police lab was closed in 2002 after a local television station, KHOU, reported several problems.

The problems included missing files, contaminated and poorly stored evidence and DNA test results that had been misinterpreted to wrongly match a suspect to a rape he had not committed.

The man, Josiah Sutton, was convicted and served 4 1/2 years in prison. He was released after independent DNA testing revealed the lab error.

The laws and proposed laws differ from state to state. Generally, they require a crime lab's testing procedures and accuracy rates to be approved by an outside body, and they create a system for punishing misconduct.

In New York state, which established the first forensic science commission in 1995, commissioners have moved beyond checking lab standards to setting policies for collecting DNA.

Last December, the panel voted to allow about 40,000 DNA profiles to be taken from criminal parolees and probationers or as a condition of plea bargains. The profiles were added to a state database of known offenders, which is linked to a national DNA database run by the FBI.

Defense lawyers generally have favored setting up forensic science commissions.

In a statement last year, the New York City-based Innocence Project said the Texas commission would improve both the "quality" of Texas' justice system and "Texans' faith in that system." Tests misread, body parts missing

Recent crime lab mistakes:

* Texas -- In January, special investigator Michael Bromwich found "severe" problems with blood typing and DNA analysis by the Houston police crime lab from 1987 to 2002. Problems included misreading test results that could have cleared a murder suspect. Based in part on the lab's faulty report, the suspect was convicted. He later was exonerated.

* Virginia -- In 2005, an auditor concluded that a state crime lab scientist failed to recognize that DNA tests appeared to rule out a man who had been convicted of murder. The man was cleared by further testing.

* Massachusetts -- Investigators in 2002 found that a pair of eyes was missing from the state medical examiner's office. Two years earlier, the family of a man who had died in police custody alleged that his body was returned with the heart missing. Gov. Mitt Romney replaced the office's director.

Source: USA TODAY research

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