A Virginia judge leading a review of cases involving DNA evidence said the experts conducting the analysis will continue to study the crime lab files from their respective homes across the country and share their observations with one another by e-mails, conference calls and individual phone conversations.
"What we needed to do when we started was to get what we needed from the lab and then get back to our families and our other jobs and complete this in a more deliberate fashion and not rush to judgment," said State Court of Appeals Judge Robert J. Humphreys, who was selected by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to be special master of the review.
He said the team concluded its work in Richmond last week by randomly selecting dozens of files from the state Division of Forensic Science, in some cases copying documents, photographs and talking with the lab's forensic scientists and their supervisors.
"Whatever the scientists thought was appropriate to take from the files -- if they felt it was important to take a copy of various documents -- they did that," Humphreys said. "They had completed the things they needed to do in Richmond . . . and they didn't see the need to get together again."
The review of the cases does not involve the testing or retesting of DNA. The five scientists, who were selected by Humphreys, include a molecular biologist from Texas and police forensic experts from Indiana and Pennsylvania. The analysis includes all Virginia death penalty cases since 1994 that relied on DNA as well a portion of cases handled by each of the state forensic lab's several dozen DNA examiners.
A court clerk for Humphreys said Wednesday that the study of the cases had been completed and that scientists now had to write reports based on their review. Humphreys expanded on those remarks, saying that the team of experts was moving on to another phase of the review, one that will not take place at the actual lab.
The scientists eventually will present written reports to Humphreys, who will present them to Warner. Humphreys said the team did not have a deadline to complete its work.
Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said he was pleased that the experts are continuing their review.
"I'm relieved to learn that they have merely copied the files at this point and that the actual review of files, slides and physical evidence has not . . . been completed," he said in an interview.
The review was prompted by an audit of the Virginia lab's role in the case of Earl Washington Jr., a former death row inmate who spent 17 years in prison before he was pardoned in 2000. In its study, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors concluded that a chief scientist failed to follow proper procedure when testing a piece of evidence in Washington's case and that his analysis of that evidence was wrong.
Humphreys said that the scientists did complete one case last week: that of Robin M. Lovitt, an inmate on death row who is scheduled to be executed July 11. State officials have said that other evidence was used to convict Lovitt and that it does not consider Lovitt's conviction a DNA case.
"The preliminary indication from the review team is that that case was handled correctly," said Ellen Qualls, Warner's director of communications.
Humphreys said that it was unclear how long the next step in the review would take.
"My impression from speaking to the scientists is that one size does not fit all in terms of the time it takes to review these things," he said. "My understanding is that no two cases that are studied are exactly alike."