A long-awaited review of DNA analysis of 123 Virginia criminal cases found no pattern of procedural problems at the state's forensic laboratory, the governor's office announced Friday.
A panel of five scientists found an analytical error by a lab technician in one death row case but concluded that the technician's other DNA analysis in that case and all other cases was sound. State officials said the error had no bearing on the case's outcome.
The review was prompted by an audit made public in May that concluded that political pressure from then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III had caused flawed results in the case of former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr., who eventually was cleared.
The audit, by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, had raised the possibility that other mistakes could have been made and urged Virginia to conduct an independent review of the Washington case and at least 50 others in which trace amounts of low-level DNA were used to obtain a conviction.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) appointed Robert J. Humphreys, a Virginia Court of Appeals judge, to lead the review, which was conducted by five DNA experts from outside Virginia.
The report says there are "no endemic deficiencies that may have substantially affected the results of low-level DNA cases analyzed by the laboratory in the past, or that may substantially affect the results of low-level DNA cases to be analyzed in the future."
The scientists recommended that the lab change its written policies in four areas to make it clearer what technicians should do in cases similar to the one in which they found an error.
In a statement, Warner said he will direct the lab to adopt the new written policies.
"DNA technology remains a powerful tool for certainty in the world of criminal justice," Warner said. "This lab has an international reputation as a leader in fighting crime with this technology, and I think this review bolsters that reputation."
The scientific review of the lab's procedures did not involve any retesting of DNA. Rather, the scientists evaluated the data in the 123 cases and the conclusions the lab's technicians drew from the data.
The data included all 28 capital cases involving low-level DNA, all 33 cases involving the technician, Jeffrey Ban, who worked on the Washington case, and 63 other randomly selected cases.
Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, criticized the review as "meaningless" and "nothing more than a paper shuffle."
Neufeld contended that the audit was flawed because the reviewers relied on the notes and reports from examiners but didn't conduct new examinations of evidence. He noted that in Washington's case, an independent scientist found evidence of another man's involvement.
"In not a single one of these 120 cases did they re-examine a piece of evidence under a microscope to determine whether the conclusion reached was the correct result," Neufeld said. "Unless you look at evidence again . . . how would you know there aren't all sorts of things wrong?"
Neufeld also criticized the auditors for failing to review the court testimony of examiners to ensure that it was consistent with laboratory findings.
A separate examination of biological samples from criminal cases ordered by Warner last fall is ongoing, said Ellen Qualls, Warner's spokeswoman. Evidence from about 30 cases from the 1970s and 1980s is being tested using current technology.
Friday's report noted concerns with the testing done in a case involving Leon Winston, who was convicted of killing a husband and wife in Lynchburg in April 2002. The review found that the technician, who is not named in the report, drew inappropriate conclusions about whether Winston could be excluded from the people whose DNA was found on a glove.
But the prosecutor in the case, Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Petty, said in an interview that the DNA from the glove was just a small piece of Winston's conviction. DNA also was found on the grip of the pistol used in the crime. The review found no problems with that analysis.
"This is the third group of scientists that have agreed that the DNA on the pistol grip belonged to Leon Winston and nobody else," Petty said. "This should not have any bearing on the guilt or innocence of Winston. He is not an innocent person."
Winston remains on death row.
Glod reported from Washington.