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. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:13am

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

    And what constitutes an "outside, unbiased party"? The crime lab in a different state?

    That would be one option, yes.

    When I said testing I meant of the 'double-blind' sort, where a sample that is known to either contain or not contain a particular substance is sent in. If the lab flags it incorrectly then it would be clear that they are doing it wrong, intentionally or not.

    How do you distinguish a violation from honest error or false positive/negative due to equipment or process limitations? For that matter, how can you tell if the error isn't on the third party side?

    For the 'intentional/accidental' violation question, frequency would probably make a pretty good metric to use. Did they make this sort of mistake once, or were they doing it on a regular basis? Once could be an accident, nineteen times, as was the case here, was most certainly not.

    As for how you check the accuracy of the testing of the lab people have been coming up with various ideas, to which I would add 'just like you check the accuracy of other forms of measurement': Multiple data points from multiple sources, checking how well they match. If lab 1 says the sample is positive, and 2 says it's negative, then there's a problem that needs to be addressed.

    A good portion of these errors are due to laziness or case overload, not bias on the part of the lab tech. Heck, even in this case we don't know if she started using her own equipment just for convenience or because the official tool was broken, required an appointment or had other hurdles that reduced her case throughput unacceptably.

    Irrelevant. Whether someone is screwing up the tests intentionally or not, the end result(innocent people in jail, guilty people walking) is the same, and as such both deserve to be cracked down on harshly. If a lab tech doesn't have the tools they need for whatever reason then they can make this known to their superiors, and if that doesn't work take it public('I do lab testing of evidence used in trials, and yet our superiors don't care if it's accurate' would be sure to get plenty of attention). What they should never do is treat their jobs as more important than the freedom or lack thereof of those on trial, and I have absolutely zero sympathy for someone who would come to that point and make the wrong choice.

    The best solution is adequate funding of the crime labs: for equipment, employee retention and for training. The same applies to the courts and so many other areas of government. One of the big reasons government is broken is that we expect more out of it than we're willing to pay for.

    Funding sufficient to do their jobs properly would be of great help, sure, but ultimately useless if they're not using it properly via making sure that the tests they perform are accurate. The most amazing gear and highly trained lab techs are no different than junk scrounged from a garbage bin and a bunch of kids if they aren't making proper use of the tech and training.


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