Homicide, Sexual Assault Cases On The Line After Crime Lab Discovers Tech Using The Wrong Tools For The Job

from the more-faith-than-science-in-the-forensic-science-community dept

When life and liberty are on the line, law enforcement lab techs are there to turn hard science into a roulette wheel. Once you get past the fact that a lot of forensic investigative techniques are little more than junk science, you run directly into the failures of the humans staffing forensic/drug testing labs.

In the state of Massachusetts alone, more than 30,000 cases are in the process of being tossed due to lab tech misconduct. One lab tech faked most of her work, speeding through her workload by faking tests and test results. Another used the drug lab as her own personal drug stash, using whatever substances she wanted from incoming evidence and replacing it with filler.

Forensic science is plagued with incompetence and overconfidence, which is an incredibly bad combination when people's freedom is on the line. Only in recent years has the DOJ instructed forensic experts to stop overstating the certainty of their findings. But that hardly fixes the problem. Outside debunkings have led to zero changes in law enforcement forensic work -- a fact so disheartening a judge very publicly resigned from a committee seeking to fix these problems when it became apparent the committee wasn't actually supposed to fix anything.

Here comes more bad news on the forensic front, via criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.

The Houston Forensic Science Center has fired a crime scene investigator who violated policy by using unapproved equipment that resulted in false negatives for biological evidence in at least two sexual assault cases, officials said Friday.

Lab officials, who fired investigator Tammy Barette Thursday, said they may never know the full impact her actions may have had on other cases.

Well, sure, you may "never know" if you don't go looking. To be on the safe side, you could consider everything this investigator ever touched tainted. That would cover the "full impact" with some to spare. But if this is handled like any other case of lab misconduct, it will take a court to force a full accounting of the damage.

From what's been uncovered so far, it appears the lab tech used her own equipment to identify the presence of bodily fluids that contain DNA. Her personal tool didn't meet the lab's requirements, making any results of hers suspect. A lab supervisor found 19 cases in which the inadequate tool was used. Even in this limited sample, there were serious problems.

Out of 19 cases where Barette used the improper light source, including the case that sparked the investigation, only four had evidence available to retest, agency spokeswoman Ramit Plushnick-Masti said. Two of those were wrongfully marked as negative for the presence of biological fluids, when they should have yielded positives.

15 more cases "might have had a different outcome." That's not very comforting, considering this lab usually handles violent crimes like homicide and sexual assault.

The lab has responded in the most government of ways: by rewriting a policy that was already in place forbidding the use of personal equipment. The language has been toughened up to make it clear the violation that was always a violation is a policy violation. The single addition is the requirement for investigators to write down the model number of the equipment they use to perform tests. That should certainly prevent any future misconduct. [Gathers rolling eyes from under desk.]

The good news is the lab immediately fired the investigator. The bad news is the problem went undiscovered long enough to do some serious damage. Most of the damage is reputational, providing criminal suspects with ammo to challenge lab findings. If one tech can perform unauthorized tests, surely other accidents and misdeeds have been overlooked. When the lab itself can't say how many cases were affected -- or even how many tests might have been handled with inadequate equipment -- the potential fallout could couple the jailing of innocent people with the release of actually guilty prisoners.

Filed Under: evidence, houston, houston forensic science center, investigations, lab tech, massachusetts, tammy barette, texas


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  1. identicon
    hegemon13, 26 Nov 2018 @ 2:06pm

    Re: Re: Not a hard problem to fix, or at least vastly reduce

    I like this idea. Even two separate labs would help. And the distribution should be completely blind until after the results are returned. Neither law enforcement nor the individual labs should know which labs received the samples for testing. This should help prevent the kind of collusion you mention, which would definitely become a problem.

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