As a society, we must trust state forensic labs to accurately test evidence. They are supposed to be neutral, not agents for the prosecution or police. They have ethical standards.
Too often, forensic labs have failed us. When they do, it can result in wrongful convictions and costly efforts to redress the situation.
Recently, prosecutors in two states and the District of Columbia have been forced to reconsider convictions that relied on evidence from a state forensic lab because of misconduct by lab employees.
Suffolk County, Massachusetts
The first is Massachusetts, where both the state drug lab in Amherst and the state drug lab in Hinton were tainted by employee misconduct. Now, the Suffolk County District Attorney says she will vacate thousands of criminal convictions in what she calls the “Hinton Lab Initiative.”
Under the plan, Suffolk County drug convictions between May 2003 and August 2012 will be vacated because two former chemists were convicted of tampering with drug evidence they were testing. During that time period, nearly 83,000 people were convicted of drug crimes in Suffolk County.
The San Francisco District Attorney announced recently that a former forensic analyst with the San Francisco medical examiner’s office has been charged with misdemeanor theft and receipt of stolen property in connection with a theft of methamphetamine.
The man, who had worked in the lab for over 13 years, had unrestricted access to the evidence room at the medical examiner and was arrested in Utah with evidence bags containing methamphetamine in his vehicle.
Over 2,500 investigations may have to be reconsidered, along with at least two dozen cases in which the former analyst testified. The DA’s office has pledged to review all convictions the man was involved with in order to ensure the integrity of those convictions.
The D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) is currently under criminal investigation. According to WTOP.com, managers at the lab allegedly pressured analysts to alter their conclusions and misrepresented facts to its accrediting body. This was apparently done in an effort to cover up a botched analysis in 2017.
Expert auditors retained by federal prosecutors have said the department’s firearms unit should immediately stop working cases due to “very serious” problems with management at the lab which “cast doubt on the reliability of the work product of the entire DFS laboratory.”
A spokesperson for DFS said that an independent accrediting body recently gave the lab a clean bill of health.
Considering that these events took place in three separate settings recently, you may wonder if the evidence in your own case could be tainted. It’s a fair question and one your criminal defense attorney should investigate.