CSI and Science: Crime Labs Across the Country Get It Wrong

CSI, the venerable CBS television franchise, has placed forensic evidence at the forefront of many people's mind in regard to solving criminal cases. There is a belief -- albeit one without any empirical support -- that CSI and its ilk have made it harder for prosecutors in cases to get convictions in cases without forensic evidence.

What we do have empirical support for, however, is that those crime labs, depicted in television crime dramas as doing careful, pure science, is far from the reality on the ground. Indeed, many crime lab employees aren't scientists at all! What is more, much of the "science" taking place in crime labs has not been "peer reviewed" or otherwise validated, a fundamental precept for something to pass muster as what we call science.

And this is why there seems to continually be problems with state and municipal crime labs. The latest case comes from Massachusetts where a state chemist has been sentenced to three to five years in prison for:

Prosecutors say Ms. Dookhan declared drug samples positive that she had not bothered to test, tampered with evidence, forged signatures and lied about her credentials to enhance her standing in court as an expert witness. In all, her actions may have tainted more than 40,000 drug samples involving thousands of defendants.

The judge, when sentencing Dookhan, said:

"Innocent persons were incarcerated," she said. "Guilty persons have been released to further endanger the public, millions and millions of public dollars are being expended to deal with the chaos Ms. Dookhan created, and the integrity of the criminal justice system has been shaken to the core."

Houston well knows the consequences of having an incompetent crime lab. Consider this list of headlines from the Houston Chronicle concerning the Houston crime lab and the Houston Press has diligently reported on the issues with the Houston crime lab, including reporting that Houston was finally shutting the lab down.

And this is a nationwide epidemic. The Los Angeles Times reports that the state of California is looking into Orange County's pattern and practice of erroneous blood-alcohol reports in DUI cases. One website has an exhaustive list of every jurisdiction where there have been crime lab issues:

These types of problems have led to scandals at dozens of crime labs across the nation, resulting in full or partial closures, reorganizations, investigations or firings at city or county labs in Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Dallas; Detroit; Erie County, New York; Houston; Los Angeles; Monroe County, New York; Oklahoma City; San Antonio, Texas; San Diego; San Francisco; San Joaquin County, California; New York City; Nashville, Tennessee; and Tucson, Arizona, as well as at state-run crime labs in Illinois, Montana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin, plus the federally-run FBI and U.S. Army crime labs.

This brings to mind the surprised, not shocked cliche. When you're dealing with people who have no real voice or who are not taken seriously by political elites -- people from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds, whether rural or urban -- and a guilty until proven innocent attitude many prosecutors have, all incentives are there for crime lab employees to serve their master (the criminal justice system).

Mayor Annise Parker should be congratulated for her work in setting up an independent crime lab. Sounds like many other cities should follow suit.

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