This opinion was originally published in the Detroit (Michigan) Free Press on November 8, 2008.
Put scientists, not cops, in crime labs
By David A. Moran and Samuel R. Gross • November 8, 2008
The Michigan State Police released a final report late last month on the firearms unit of the Detroit Police Crime Lab. It’s a highly disturbing document.
MSP found, among other deficiencies, that guns and bullets were kept unsecured and unprotected from possible loss and contamination; that essential records were missing in some 90% of the files; that critical scientific equipment had never been properly calibrated; and that many of the firearms examiners were untrained and unqualified.
An audit of 283 of the cases handled by the unit found an error rate greater than 10% – including several cases in which the examiners apparently assumed that the submitted bullets and shell casings came from the defendants’ guns without actually testing all of the evidence. It is likely that errors by this unit have led to many wrongful convictions.
Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy and Detroit Police Chief James Barren have responded forcefully to this fiasco. In September, after a preliminary version of the report was issued, they shut down the entire Detroit Police Crime Lab. Worthy is also committed to retesting evidence in the hundreds, if not thousands, of cases in which people have been convicted based on results from the firearms unit.
We commend Worthy and Barren for their commitment to seeing that justice is done. Their task will get even harder if the city finds the funds to complete the audit of the crime lab, including the units that deal with fingerprints, DNA evidence and other physical and biological specimens.
The good news is that Detroit may be no worse off than many other cities. The bad news is that the good news – if you can call it that – is really terrible. This is a crisis that is national in scope. Consider three examples, among many:
• The Houston Police Department’s crime lab was shut down in 2003 after a media investigation uncovered massive incompetence. Thousands of cases were affected. After the shutdown 280 boxes of lost or mishandled evidence were discovered in a property room, including human body parts and a fetus.
• Last month, the Los Angeles Police Department fired a fingerprint analyst and suspended three others for reporting false fingerprint identifications. We don’t know yet how widespread the problem in Los Angeles is, but similar things have happened elsewhere. An ABC News report in 1994 found that officers had faked fingerprint matches in dozens of cases in at least seven states.
• In 1997 a Justice Department report concluded that 13 technicians at FBI crime labs had made serious errors or slanted testimony to help prosecutors. A later investigation concluded that thousands of cases may have been tainted by shoddy work or misleading evidence.
Fixing this problem will take money, training, and supervision. We’ll never get CSI evidence worth using if the work is done with outdated equipment by untrained, underpaid and overworked technicians.
But money alone can’t solve everything. Most crime labs in the United States are run by police departments. That should change. We need independent crime labs run by scientists, not by police officers.
Some forensic examiners in police crime labs come to believe that their advancement depends on pleasing the officers who give them evidence to test. In the worst cases, this leads to outright fraud and the conviction of innocent people.
• Joyce Gilchrist, a chemist in the Oklahoma City Police Crime Lab, became a star as the “go to expert” – the one who could deliver a conviction where others failed. By the time she was fired in 2001, her fraudulent testimony had sent at least three innocent men to prison, including two to death row. Hundreds of her other cases are still under investigation by the authorities.
• Fred Zain was chief of serology – blood science – at the West Virginia State Police lab, where he was implicated in hundreds of cases of fraud and perjury. He went on to pursue his ignominious career in San Antonio, Texas – where he died while perjury charges were pending – but only after he was named West Virginia State Trooper of the Year. Zain’s fraudulent testimony sent at least five innocent people to prison.
Systematic fraud is only the most extreme problem with police-run crime labs. After the police arrest a suspect, their job is to get him convicted. This applies to everybody in the police department: We all believe in our own teams and want to help them win. This can lead the most honest investigators to misinterpret evidence and to reach conclusions that are consistent with their initial beliefs.
Worse, this type of tunnel vision causes lab workers to ignore evidence that points to other suspects. Fingerprints that were left by some unknown person – or blood with DNA that doesn’t match the suspect – may seem unimportant when you’re focused on getting a conviction. The Innocence Project has documented scores of cases around the country, including at least three in Michigan, in which innocent defendants were convicted while physical evidence pointing to the real criminals was ignored or discounted.
Physical evidence - unlike witness testimony – offers the promise of an objective truth free from the taint of human bias and error. It is as important for the defense in criminal cases as for the prosecution. Fingerprints, blood, semen, guns, bullets and drugs can all provide highly reliable evidence of a defendant’s guilt – or of his innocence – if they are properly collected, stored and tested. If not, there may never be a second chance to do it right.
We need crime lab investigators who do their work with scrupulous care without regard to the suspicions or beliefs of the police. We need labs to be open to defense attorneys as well as prosecutors. We need independent, science-driven crime labs rather than labs run by police departments.
David A. Moran and Samuel R. Gross are professors at the University of Michigan Law School. Moran is also co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.