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Already under fire, crime labs cut to the bone


About 250 case files languish in a bin at the Maine State Police computer crimes unit in Vassalboro. The files document the worst child pornography cases, complete with instructional videos detailing how to sexually assault children without getting caught.

The Maine crime lab can’t get to the cases because it’s overworked. With more cases coming in every week, the bin will likely never be empty.

The Maine crime lab, like many across the country, is stumbling under what specialists call the CSI Effect. Americans see television lab techs unravel the knottiest cases with evidence culled from the smallest clues, thanks to the most advanced equipment ever devised, and they presume that’s how it works in the real world.

It doesn’t. There are serious questions about the credibility of nearly every kind of crime lab analysis, the conclusions of which often rest on unproven science filtered through the subjective judgment of technicians whose training and certification vary wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

And with crime labs struggling under backlogs that already reach back years in many cities and states, budget cuts driven by the recession are threatening to make credible crime scene analysis a lost art, law enforcement officials and forensic specialists say.

“Overall, most laboratories lack adequate, dedicated and stable funding to fully accomplish their work,” the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors warned in the wake of a highly critical National Academy of Sciences report on crime labs, the impact of which continues to shake lawmakers and criminal justice experts a year after it was released.

Crime lab analysis has never been the empirical, nearly foolproof discipline depicted in top-rated TV shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order.”

Except for nuclear DNA analysis, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” the National Academies report said.

Numerous mistakes have come to light in recent months, potentially sabotaging untold numbers of criminal cases.

Elected officials know it’s political suicide to take police officers off the street, so if jobs have to go, the cuts typically come in back-office services like crime lab analysis:
  • Georgia is planning to close three of its seven regional crime labs on April 1. The state loses an average of four lab technicians a year to better-paying jobs elsewhere — especially in federal operations like the highly regarded FBI Laboratory — or in private industry. There’s no money to hire enough new scientists to keep the labs open, said officials of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which operates the facilities.
  • A shortage of ballistics examiners at the Washington State Patrol crime labs has created backlogs of up to a year, but Gov. Christine Gregoire is proposing to cut, not add, jobs. The lab’s acting director, Larry Hebert, insisted that all the fat had been trimmed from his budget and said any further cuts could mean even deeper reductions in service.
  • Requests for DNA analysis rose by 25 percent last year in Kansas, at the same time that the number of scientists at the state crime lab in Wichita dropped by 20 percent. The backlog is now about 800 cases and is expected to rise, because open jobs at the lab won’t be filled during the budget crisis.
  • The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is seeking legislation this year to allow it to charge police departments and other law enforcement agencies for using its forensics lab. Budget cuts mean the charges — $2,000 a year for small agencies and $6,000 a year for larger agencies — are the only way the TBI can avoid layoffs, Director Mark Gwyn said.
The money has been drying up even as the National Academies has urged many expensive changes to improve the reliability of crime lab reports. Boiled down from 254 densely scientific pages, it questions two fundamental underpinnings of forensic analysis itself: Is the science reliable, and are analysts qualified to interpret it?

Funding for forensic scientists varies widely from place to place, the report notes. Substandard facilities can lead to contamination of the evidence that is analyzed and stored in them. Analysts, many of whom are inadequately trained, are badly overworked. (Plus, they’re human beings, whose judgments are subject to bias.)

And once a report is concluded, it is not subject to assessment by scientific peers; instead, it is put in the hands of defense lawyers whose job it is to destroy it.

It adds up to a system that the public believes is infallible but that experts know is anything but. As the report’s authors concluded: “Substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people.”

Posted: 2/23/2010 4:29:00 PM

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