Crime lab revamp promises needed oversight
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 15, 2004
Last updated: 7:06 PM

A proposed revamp of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, to be unveiled today by the State Crime Commission, reflects mounting calls for more independent scrutiny of the nationís crime labs.

The Virginia lab, like many, is largely self-regulated.

The legislation, championed by Virginia Beach Sen. Ken Stolle, would make DFS a separate state agency, beholden to a policy board and a scientific advisory panel.

The scientific group, in particular, is essential in an era when scandals have rocked forensic labs from Texas to Montana to Ohio. Details arenít final, but the panel should be handed real authority to guide the standards that labs use in interpreting DNA and other scientific evidence admitted into court.

Too few judges, lawyers, and juries understand the science behind the use of DNA testing as a crime-fighting tool. Too many mistakenly regard it as unassailable and infallible.

Long recognized as a national leader among forensic labs, the Virginia Division of Forensic Science recently spawned controversy with its handling of DNA in the case of former death-row inmate Earl Washington Jr.

In late September, Gov. Mark Warner quietly ordered an outside audit of the state results, which conflicted with the findings of a private lab. The outcome has not been announced, but the six-month delay before Warner acted highlights the gap in scientific understanding in both the executive and legislative branches.

Currently, the state labís technical decisions and policies receive almost no scrutiny within state government because the expertise doesnít exist. An organization established by the nationís crime lab directors performs regular accreditation audits, but in many cases, the lab has to blow the whistle on itself if it wants a controversial case reviewed. The upshot is that scientific judgments affecting life and death outcomes often get little, if any, serious external review.

To ensure the reliability of lab results, an independent board of scientists could be helpful in the following areas:

Purchase of technology. For example, there are two major commercial systems for processing and analyzing DNA. Some years ago, the Virginia lab elected to invest millions of dollars in a system that, over time, has become the least used. One consequence is that fewer ďexpertĒ witnesses are familiar with the system chosen by DFS.

Eliminating bias. Some reformers argue that lab technicians analyzing DNA should complete their evaluations without knowing the genetic makeup of the defendants in a case. Contrary to popular understanding, technicians have considerable leeway in interpreting DNA results in certain cases, and bias toward the prosecution can easily result.

Lab expertise. Itís important that individuals with strong academic credentials and experience in scientific disciplines hold key positions at the state lab. Currently, no one outside the department evaluates resumes to see if thatís happening.

Oversight. When allegations of error occur, as in the Washington case, a scientific panel could give policy-makers a fast, independent evaluation of DFSís procedures.

The potential value of scientific oversight is illustrated in the handling of DNA evidence in the case of Anthony Winston, a Lynchburg man sentenced to die for a 2002 double homicide.

University of California, Irvine criminology professor William C. Thompson, who helped trigger the 2002 shutdown of the Houston Police Departmentís DNA lab, reviewed the case for the editorial page of The Virginian-Pilot. He found serious error in both the statistical calculations and the quality assurance procedures.

Thompsonís evaluation centers on gloves found at the crime scene. The gloves were not the most compelling evidence of Winstonís guilt, but the way they were handled by the lab is instructive.

Thompson believes the testimony of the lab grossly exaggerated the strength of the DNA evidence linking Winston to the gloves.

According to Thompson, the analyst ďcherry-picked the data most favorable to the prosecution theory and left other potentially exculpatory data out of the equation.Ē

Is Thompson right? Or is the lab? Thereís no way to know for sure. Thatís why Stolleís initiative is so necessary to the integrity of forensic science in Virginia.

Lawmakers committed to the truth will push for a scientific advisory board capable of understanding both the questions and the answers.

The consequences of error are too grave to rely so strongly on self-regulation.

© 2004