A team of scientists has completed its study of 160 criminal cases in which DNA evidence was examined by the state's Division of Forensic Science, a court clerk for the judge leading the review said Wednesday.
The analysis of the lab's work was recommended in an audit report released last month that was critical of the work of a senior analyst in the case of a Virginia man, Earl Washington Jr., who was sentenced to death for rape and murder but later pardoned.
The review of the cases, ordered by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), began last week and did not involve the testing or retesting of DNA. Experts looked at dozens of files and reviewed written conclusions to determine whether scientists who handled the evidence followed proper procedures.
"The way things stand now, they do not need to reconvene to re-review the cases," said Margaret O'Shea, a clerk for Virginia Court of Appeals Judge Robert J. Humphreys, who is leading the review. She added there was a chance that some may have to be looked at a second time, "because you can never be certain."
The five scientists who conducted the review now have to complete their written reports on the review of the cases, a process that could take until the end of the summer, she said.
Several lawyers familiar with Virginia's forensics labs expressed concern about the length of time spent on the actual review, given the number of cases. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project in Washington, said, "It is frankly inconceivable and would defy all scientific protocol for five people to complete an examination of 162 cases in a week and a half."
Edward T. Blake, a top forensic scientist whose work on behalf of Washington uncovered the Virginia lab's error in handling evidence, called the speed at which the committee did its work "laughable" and said it begs the question of why it is going to take until the end of the summer to release a report. "Are we going to get a nine-day review and then three months of spin-doctoring?" he said.
Kevin Hall, Warner's press secretary, said that the review was meant to simply check the files of a random selection of cases to ensure that basic protocols were followed. It was never to have been an exhaustive review, he said.
"This was a tabletop review; it wasn't a microscopic review," Hall said. "They pulled the files and reviewed the process and conclusions. They didn't pull the evidence and retest it. Would we have expected it to take any longer?"
In its critical review of the Virginia lab released last month, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors concluded that a chief scientist failed to follow proper procedure when testing a piece of evidence in Earl Washington Jr.'s case and that the analysis of that evidence was wrong.
The auditors also concluded that an internal review failed to properly identify the errors made by the scientist, Jeffrey Ban.
Also Wednesday, the Virginia ACLU and a coalition of 15 groups opposed to the death penalty urged Warner to order retesting of DNA evidence for two dozen Virginia death row inmates.
The group also asked Warner to stay the execution of Robin M. Lovitt, an inmate on death row who is scheduled to be executed July 11. Lovitt's case is one of the dozens that were reviewed by the national experts last week, O'Shea said.