California's Crime Lab Problems
Jeff Chesen, Research Attorney
The California Crime Laboratory Review Task Force, comprised of crime lab directors, forensic specialists, law enforcement officials, academic experts and attorneys, was created by the California legislature in 2007.1 California lawmakers created the 17-member Task Force on a combined 118-0 vote in the Assembly and state Senate2 in a bill that declared the task force should "take effect immediately as an urgency statute."3 This was chiefly because more than 250 million DNA samples from California criminals had not been tested.4 Yet when the Task Force released a report5 in Nov. 2009 it scarcely drew attention.
The Task Force's report was disseminated just months after the National Academy of Sciences issued a scathing report called "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward."6 The NAS Report documented numerous concerns and made several recommendations, including:
The Task Force report addressed funding, organization and management, staff and training, certification, performance standards and equipment and statewide forensic science oversight. In all, the Task Force report made 41 recommendations to address crime lab problems.8 Included in the recommendations was that all people practicing in forensic science or testifying as forensic science analysts or examiners should be certified by a reputable certifying body.9 There were also recommendations on statewide oversight, funding and certification.10
Several months after the Task Force released its report a San Francisco Police Department Crime Laboratory technician was accused of stealing cocaine evidence from the narcotics unit for personal use.11 The SFPD Chief permanently closed the drug section and outsourced all narcotics testing to private companies. The San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris, reviewed hundreds of pending drug cases and began reviewing potentially tainted convictions.
While reeling from this disclosure it was learned that test tubes containing DNA evidence from a San Francisco homicide case had been mixed up.12 The DNA unit's former supervisor ordered the destruction of documents regarding the switch.13 Then she and the former crime lab director denied any knowledge of the incident when confronted by investigators from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD). The ASCLD accreditation board subsequently released a report confirming the DNA sample switch and questioned SFPD statements about lab security.14
The crime lab's scientific and ethical lapses and the failure to disclose those problems to defendants have forced prosecutors to re-evaluate recent cases that depend on DNA evidence. Some DNA-related cases have also been dismissed, just as hundreds of drug cases were dropped when the scandal involving the stolen cocaine was revealed.15
While some crime labs have dealt with scandals, other counties in northern California have outsourced to a private firm called Forensic Medical Group. Some doctors working for Forensic Medical Group had previously been fired by public agencies for substandard work.16
Dr. Thomas Gill was hired by Forensic Medical Group in 1998 after he was fired by the coroner in Indianapolis for misdiagnosing causes of deaths in several cases and drinking on the job.17 It was discovered that Gill missed key evidence on a Sonoma County death investigation and he was coached by prosecutors to downplay his past when he was questioned, prompting the dismissal of a murder charge.18 Gill was declared incompetent by the California State Bar in 2006. Despite this, Forensic Medical Group hired him again in 2007 and he performed more than 800 autopsies during the next three years in Yolo, Napa and Solano counties alone.19 Gill was profiled in an investigation that was produced and broadcast by Frontline, NPR, California Watch, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.20
As crime lab scandals and the NAS report garnered California's forensic attention, the Task Force abruptly voted to disband. Officially, the Task Force claimed it had done what it set out to do when it released its recommendations.21 Members said the Task Force may reconvene after federal funding and federal regulations are determined. They pointed to proposed legislation by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Criminal Justice and Forensic Reform Act of 2011.22
Yet not all Task Force members wanted to disband. Some asserted that the federal legislation would not address California's crime lab issues. Los Angeles County deputy public defender Jennifer Friedman, UC Irvine criminology and law professor William Thompson, the representative of the Senate pro Tem David Lynch and the representative of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice Michael Burt wrote in a letter:
None of the proposed federal legislation is designed to address state specific issues such as the proper allocation of resources within the State of California, or the investigation and tracking of negligence or misconduct
by California criminalists and crime labs.23
The members behind the decision to disband were the lab directors themselves, who claim their own accreditation group can handle crime lab oversight.24 Some members pointed to the clear conflict of interest behind the crime lab directors' votes. Friedman and Thompson wrote in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, "So why did the California Crime Laboratory Review Task Force precipitously vote to disband itself? The answer lies in the task force's composition: Its membership was dominated by laboratory managers and representatives of organizations that operate crime laboratories."25
Since the Task Force has disbanded it is California's District Attorney's responsibility to determine the next step for the state's crime labs. In Nov. 2010, Californians elected Kamala Harris, formerly the San Francisco District Attorney, to the statewide role. It was Harris who was responsible for oversight in the office that covered up the DNA evidence switching. Her office also did not share the ASCLD report about the evidence switching with defense attorneys, a violation of Brady v. Maryland requiring prosecutors to turn over potentially exculpatory information to criminal defendants.26 Ironically for California, Harris made a point in her victory speech of the need to reform the state's crime labs.27
1 Cal. Assembly Bill 1079, Chapter 405 (2007).
2 Andy Furillo, California Crime Lab Overseers Split, Sacramento Bee, June 18, 2010. Found at http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/06/18/96147/california-crime-lab-overseers.html (last checked on Mar. 10, 2011).
3 Cal. Assembly Bill 1079, Chapter 405 (2007).
4 John Alston, Board That Oversees Calif. Crime Labs Disbanded, KGO-TV, June 18, 2010. Found at http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/san_francisco&id=7507462 (last checked on Mar. 10, 2011).
5 See "An Examination of Forensic Science in California," California Crime Laboratory Review Task Force, Nov. 2009. Found at http://ag.ca.gov/publications/crime_labs_report.pdf (last checked on Mar. 4, 2011).
6 "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," National Academies Press (2009). Found at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12589&page=R1 (last checked on Mar. 4, 2011).
7 California Review of Forensic Science Complete, Forensic Magazine, Jan. 29, 2010. Found at http://www.forensicmag.com/news/california-review-forensic-science-complete (last checked on Mar. 4, 2011).
8 John Alston, Board That Oversees Calif. Crime Labs Disbanded, KGO-TV, June 18, 2010. Found at http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/san_francisco&id=7507462 (last checked on Mar. 10, 2011).
11 Peter Jamison, SFPD Crime Lab's DNA Evidence Could Be Tainted by Concealed Mistakes, SF Weekly, Dec. 15, 2010. Found at http://www.sfweekly.com/2010-12-15/news/sfpd-s-troubled-crime-lab-more-evidence-of-screwups-and-coverups (last checked on Mar. 24, 2011).