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Popular ideas about police crime labs have been formed by television programs like “NCIS” and “CSI,” where highly trained, usually ethical technicians use science to solve crimes and put criminals behind bars.
But recent major scandals are challenging those perceptions, and prompting some in Congress to consider legislation aimed at improving oversight of the nation’s crime labs. Critics are skeptical that reform is likely.
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Deborah Becker of WBUR reports.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Popular notions about police crime labs have been influenced by television programs like "NCIS" and "CSI," where highly trained, meticulous technicians use science to solve crimes. But recent major scandals are challenging those perceptions and prompting some in Congress to consider legislation aimed at improving oversight of the nation's crime labs. Critics, however, are skeptical that any reform is likely. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WBUR's Deborah Becker reports.
DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: In November, former Massachusetts chemist Annie Dookhan was sentenced to a three to five-year prison term for falsifying drug tests affecting tens of thousands of criminal cases. Boston defense attorney Todd Pomerleau represents about two dozen people convicted based on Dookhan's evidence-tampering.
TODD POMERLEAU: We're basically in this holding pattern, where we keep waiting. We've been waiting for, you know, the proverbial day in court.
BECKER: When the scandal broke in August of 2012, those incarcerated based on evidence that Dookhan tested did have a day in court. Many were quickly identified, and had their sentences stayed. More than 3,200 so-called drug lab court hearings have been held, and more than 350 people have been released from Massachusetts prisons.
We spoke with one defendant, who didn't want his name used for fear of possible retaliation here in the States and deportation to his native country, where some drug crimes are punishable by execution. He says after serving four years in prison, he was one of the first defendants to appear before a Massachusetts judge, via video conference, from prison.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From a person that was held on bail and serving eight to 12 years, and then going to - in front of a judge, and then the judge was, like, $3,000 bail, I was, like, in a state of shock. So, from that moment, I was, like, OK. Which way is the door? How do I get out of here?
BECKER: The man was released on conditions. He has a curfew and wears a GPS monitoring device. But he's been to court about a dozen times, and his case remains unresolved.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why do we put a justice system forward, this democracy, as they call it, right? I don't have the problem of doing my time or serving my time for what I did wrong, but justify it. And to waste taxpayers' money for the past year and a half, I don't think that's fair. And people should be up in arms at that and say, you know what? You guys didn't follow the law, just like he didn't follow the law.
BECKER: Matt Segal, with the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, says his organization is looking at legal ways to try to get the state to deal with the cases more quickly.
MATT SEGAL: The state has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this scandal, and what have we gotten for that expenditure? The answer is almost nothing. It certainly hasn't been justice. It hasn't been a better approach on the drug war.
BECKER: Prosecutors say they're waiting for a court ruling on how to deal with the affected cases, and a state inspector general investigation into all lab operations. Attorney Pomerleau says with Massachusetts having the nation's largest lab scandal, defense attorneys here are now more likely to question forensic testing and to scrutinize the analyst involved, especially because Dookhan was convicted of lying about her credentials.
POMERLEAU: She's testifying under oath, apparently, that she had a master's degree, and the Commonwealth couldn't even confirm she went to the school? You know, I mean, I require my interns to show me a transcript, and apparently, the lab had different protocols in place for employment.
BECKER: Here's the thing: There are no national regulations governing forensic analyst credentials. In fact, there are no uniform standards for the forensic labs, and there's more than one group that accredits them. The nonprofit that accredits most of the crime labs in the U.S. is called ASCLD/LAB. ASCLD/LAB's chief operations officer, John Neuner, says accreditation can only go so far, and the issue in Massachusetts was probably deeper.
JOHN NEUNER, CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER, ASCLD/LAB: It just sounds like an ethical issue. Certainly, a laboratory can have all the policies and procedures in the world. But if you don't have ethical people working there, then you're going to have problems.
BECKER: Accreditation from ASCLD/LAB lasts for five years. It conducts yearly, announced inspections, and corrective action plans are drawn up if violations are found. Neuner admits, though, that to his knowledge, no lab has ever had its accreditation revoked. The now-closed Hinton drug lab where Annie Dookhan worked was not accredited. But forensic consultant Brent Turvey says that could have made things even worse.
BRENT TURVEY: In the Hinton lab, if they were accredited, the incentive to commit the kind of fraud that Annie Dookhan was committing would have been higher because the issue would have been maintaining accreditation. In fact, the majority of labs where forensic frauds are exposed, the majority of them are ASCLD/LAB accredited.
BECKER: Turvey, who's written a book about forensic fraud, says there have been at least 12 crime lab scandals in the U.S. in the past two years. He says with more criminal cases relying on forensics, lab oversight is something Congress needs to address.
TURVEY: The forensic science community is not like any other community. It's not beholding to anyone other than police and prosecutors. The question is: Are we creating crime fighters or are we creating scientists? And do we require them to tell the truth, or do we try and require them to help the police and prosecution?
BECKER: A report to Congress raised that same question about five years ago, but there has been little movement toward change. In Massachusetts, most forensic testing is now overseen by state police. And in November, a chemist who had worked with Dookhan but was moved to the state police lab after the scandal broke was fired for lying about her credentials. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston.
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CHAKRABARTI: And a little earlier in the show, we talked about the wind chill factor, you know, when people say, it's 10 degrees outside but the wind chill factor is minus 30. Well, many of you are weighing in on our Facebook page about doing away with the wind chill factor, especially since it's based on a bunch of assumptions that probably don't apply to you. Chris Jones writes: Yes. While we're at it, let's lose heat index too. And, oh, can we dump daylight savings also, please?
CHAKRABARTI: He seems like a measurement purist. I can appreciate that. Pat Costa, however, says: Though the number may be somewhat contrived, it still provides a good indicator of how warmly you should dress and provides a real warning for the dangers of hypothermia and frostbite.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Plus, it also let's you claim the coldest place. I still think...
CHAKRABARTI: Robin, you're always so competitive. I love that.
YOUNG: That's a part of it.
CHAKRABARTI: Peter Guetta(ph) also says that how about we change to a three-tier warning system: cold, very cold and the-rent-is-too-darned-high cold?
CHAKRABARTI: I think that's a measurement a lot of people can appreciate no matter what the temperature is. You can let us know what you think at facebook.com/hereandnowradio. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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