Correction: An earlier version of this editorial listed the incorrect location for the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences lab set to open next year. The version below has been corrected.

May 31, 2011

THE IDEA BEHIND the push for an independent crime lab in the District is to encourage sound science. Instead of having police collect evidence, analyze it and testify to its reliability, experts schooled in forensic sciences would conduct the tests that are critical in helping to determine a person’s guilt or innocence. The key to this process is openness; that’s why the city’s lawmakers need to reconsider a measure that would make it harder for defendants and their counsel to obtain key test records.

The D.C. Council is set to give final approval June 7 to a bill that would establish a separate Department of Forensic Sciences to operate a $220 million lab on Fourth Street SW. Set to open in 2012, the lab will bring under one roof laboratory services and scientific investigations. It promises a vast improvement over the current minimal capabilities. Sponsored by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the legislation could ensure that the facility is fully exploited to improve criminal justice in the District.

But one troubling aspect of the measure is a provision governing the release of records. Documents that an expert would use to assess the reliability and validity of work performed — such as lab notes, raw data and photos — would not be available to the defense as a matter of course. Instead, the lab would provide the documents to the government and the defense would have to convince the government to share the information or litigate whether the documents are “material” to the preparation of the defense under criminal-
discovery rules. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which sought the change, says the current protocols and rules of discovery are sound and have been effective in making information available. It argues that there are instances when premature release of information could jeopardize an investigation or endanger a potential witness.

Surely, though, mechanisms could be put in place for those exceptional instances in which there is need for secrecy or delay in the release of information. One of the findings from the seminal report by the National Academy of Science on forensic science centered on the failure of the current system of discovery to produce sound science in courthouses. Not only is discovery litigation expensive, involving expert testimony and evidentiary hearings, but it is argued and decided by non-scientists.

The D.C. Public Defender Service rightly contends that a fundamental principle of scientific methodology is openness, which allows scientists access to the data needed to test the results and conclusions of another scientist’s work. Indeed, we can’t help but wonder whether the debacle that has surrounded the District’s use of faulty breathalyzer data in hundreds of drunk driving convictions might have been averted if the data had — as a matter of routine — been made available to defense attorneys. The credibility of the independent lab can only be hurt by restrictions on the release of data.