Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Misconduct in Police Laboratories

A web browser will deliver hundreds of hits.  Search for "police laboratory misconduct" and "forsenic fraud" and similar terms to uncover case after case.  These are the among the most prominent recent examples, but they are not alone or exceptional.
  • Houston Police Department
  • Detroit Police Department
  • North Carolina Bureau of Investigation
  • San Francisco Police Department
Several problems work at once.  First, to err is human.  If a laboratory is 99,9% perfect and runs 10 tests a day, then three mistakes per year are likely.  That is not too bad -- except that the mistakes put innocent people in prison... and on death row.  Labs are over-worked.  Everyone wants "CSI evidence."  Haste leads to errors; and double-checking is not cost-effective or time-effective.  Then, there is the fact that police labs support police expectations.  If evidence is inconclusive, laboratories may report what the police tell them is most likely.
Laboratories are no different from any other human social structure.   In 2004, Brandon Mayfield of Washington County, Oregon, was accused of participating in the terrorist bombing of the Madrid, Spain, train station.  The Spanish police sent fingerprints and other evidence from the scene to agencies around the world, including the FBI.  The FBI fingerprint lab found a possible partial match indicating Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer, whose fingerprints were on file.  After close examination, two different examiners ruled him out.  In their opinion, it was not a match.  However, their boss, the fingerprint laboratory supervisor insisted that they were wrong and argued them into changing their opinions.  In 2006, the US Government admitted its mistake awarding a damage claim to Mayfield.
Use your browser to find out about Brandon Mayfled
Here is the Report from the Department of Justice's own Office of the Inspector General.
Fred Zain
 Forensic scientist Fred Zain lied about his credentials when he got his job at the West Virginia state police crime lab.  He lied about his college major, claiming chemistry.  In fact, he majored in English and got a D in the only chemistry class he took.  Zain later got a job in Texas with the San Antonio police department.  However, the problems with the West Virginia lab continued, after his leaving.   “Independent expert Mark Stolorow found that every category of misconduct that was committed by Fred Zain was also committed by Fred Zain’s assistants” after Zain left..."  
(National Association of Criminal Defense Laywers here.)
Joyce Gilchrist
A forensic scientist with the Oklahoma City police department, Gilchrist's testimony sent 12 men to the electric chair.  In her 21 years on the department, she received only positive evaluations, was awarded Employee of the Year, and was promoted to supervisor.

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