A better way to manage evidence

Sunday, February 20, 2011; 7:24 PM

BECAUSE D.C. police botched alcohol breath tests, a number of drunk drivers may go unpunished. Equally troubling is the possibility some innocent people were wrongly arrested. The embarrassment surrounding these cases underscores the importance of sound evidence and good management of forensic evidence. It's a powerful argument why the District's new crime lab should be operated independently from the police department.

The District has almost completed a $220 million state-of-the-art forensics laboratory on Fourth Street SW. The city now has minimal forensics capability, farming out much of the work to federal facilities. The new building, set to open in 2012, will bring under one roof laboratory services and scientific investigations, including DNA/biological analysis, computer forensics and firearm examination. The new facility holds the real promise of boosting the District's capabilities in solving and successfully prosecuting crimes.

But, as demonstrated by the current debacle of drunk-driving arrests that can't be pursued and the high-profile case of Donald Gates, whose wrongful murder conviction was traced to faulty forensics, it's key that forensic issues be managed and resolved by scientists who are independent from the police who collect the evidence.

The D.C. Council is considering a bill, sponsored by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), that would create a department of forensic sciences patterned after Virginia's successful model. Its director would be schooled in forensics sciences and would report directly to the mayor. Mr. Mendelson is right to argue there are inherent weaknesses when police collect the evidence, analyze it and testify to its reliability. The push for an independent lab comes amid growing awareness about the need to inject more science into forensic science.

Clearly, there are details, mainly budgetary, that will need to be worked out. The chief financial officer is working on a fiscal impact statement. But, encouragingly, officials say they won't be deterred in their aim to operate the new facility in the way that best serves justice.

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