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A Lab Shutdown

            The Department of Forensic Science in Washington, DC was supposed to be a model lab that would change lab work on crime scene evidence for the better.  The DC government passed a “Department of Forensic Sciences Act of 2011,” to make the lab more independent of police.  They paid over $210 million for a large new building.  After years of concern that crime scene evidence was not being professionally tested, it seemed like everything was finally going right.

            “Maybe I’m a dinosaur. I lost confidence in myself, and I feel I let my co- workers down,” a firearms examiner at the Metropolitan crime lab in Washington, DC explained. In 2016, he retired, after he failed a routine proficiency test that many labs give each year. Concerned supervisors responded by reviewing a sample of his recent case work, and they readily uncovered a serious error: he incorrectly linked shell casings to a weapon. The lab supervisors expanded the audit to include over a hundred cases he handled that year, and found a second error. In response, the analyst retired, saying: “I was wrong, I don’t want to embarrass the unit.” Yet it was not just his fault.  A colleague had reviewed his work in each case, so a total of three examiners made mistakes. 

            In response, nothing changed.  Like at many labs, there were no clear rules for how to respond to reported errors.  No audit was required. Defense lawyers were not told of the problems and could not find them on their own by looking at lab reports, either.  Firearms examiners examine bullets or shell casings under a microscope but they do not write up detailed reports or document their conclusions. They eyeball the evidence and make a call.  It is hard to say whether they are right or wrong.  And yet their work is used in thousands of criminal cases each year.

A Single Spot-Check

            Fast forward two years: in a murder trial, Judge Todd Edelman ruled in 2019, that after hearing from several experts, he was concerned published studies have not been able to show that examiners can reliably make a “source identification.”  The judge held that the most an expert can say for the government is “the recovered firearm cannot be excluded as the source of the cartridge casing found on the scene of the alleged shooting.”  

            When Judge Edelman had a new case involving firearms and charges against two men for two killings, prosecutors were concerned. The firearms group at the lab had reported the same weapon fired the cartridges in the two shootings.  Since the Judge had been skeptical in the past, the prosecutors wanted to make sure it was a hit.  They asked an independent examiner to take a look at the evidence.  The examiner was sure that no, it was clear that two different firearms were involved.  The lab defiantly insisted the outside examiner was wrong.  Prosecutors asked three more outside experts to look at the evidence. They all agreed it came from two different guns. 

            The lab went into damage control mode. The lab director publicly called it a “darn good lab.” Internally, two examiners reexamined the evidence and agreed that the cartridges came from two different weapons.  A meeting with lab managers was convened and the top brass said that they should all instead report a finding of “inconclusive,” meaning no conclusion should be reached.  Now the management told the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAD), which accredited the lab, that they had made an “inconclusive” finding after initiating a review.  

            This was a false report.  A scathing audit report found lab managers sought to conceal the problem by changing the finding to “inconclusive.”  One examiner recalled how he tried to: “push back as long as I could” and wished he had resigned in protest.  The auditors concluded this illustrated “very serious” problems with management that indicated a lack of adherence to “core principles of integrity” and ethics. 

            In April 2020, the lab accreditation was suspended and the lab stopped doing work.  Prosecutors opened a probe. The lab director resigned. A criminal investigation of the lab is pending and the lab remains closed.

            This began with a spot-check in a single case.  Why wasn’t that spot-checking routine? Why did it take an outside expert, brought in by prosecutors in a single case, to uncover problems this serious?  Why didn’t defense lawyers ever get to test the evidence themselves? How many thousands or tens of thousands of cases might be affected by the issues in the lab?  How many innocent people were convicted?  For how many years had these problems been festering?