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D.C. commits to sweeping post-conviction review after report uncovers breakdowns in city’s forensics arm

Firearms in storage at the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a sentence as a direct quotation in the report. The sentence was a summary of its findings. The article has been corrected.

The District has committed to a sweeping review of criminal convictions dating back a decade after a new report found breakdowns in leadership, training and oversight throughout the agency tasked with analyzing crime scene evidence.

The enormous undertaking, which D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced in an order Monday evening, will include cases involving the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences’ firearms examination, latent fingerprint and the digital evidence units. Chris Geldart, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said he hopes to meet with representatives from the D.C. Public Defender Service, the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia and the D.C. attorney general’s office, among others, within 10 days.

“Do I feel a sense of responsibility? Yes, absolutely. The District owns this responsibility,” Geldart said.

The city hired Virginia-based consulting firm SNA International to complete an exhaustive assessment of the crime lab’s operations after it lost its accreditation in May and halted its work analyzing evidence. The resulting 157-page report offered a thorough indictment of the D.C. government’s forensics arm and recommended the post-conviction review, as well as myriad steps to ensure accurate and consistent analysis of evidence.

The report has generated fear among stakeholders in the District that the agency’s failures over the past decade may have resulted in wrongful arrests, prosecutions and convictions. The city released SNA’s findings Monday evening, at the same time as it published the mayor’s order.

Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the D.C. Council’s committee on the judiciary and public safety, committed to join the mayor’s ad hoc committee and expressed deep concern about the integrity of criminal cases in Washington. He said he worried that flawed science at the heart of D.C.’s justice system may have posed safety risks to the city and wrongly stripped victims of closure and defendants of liberties.

“It is difficult to express the gravity of the report’s findings and recommendations for the District’s criminal justice system,” Allen said in a statement. “Particularly on defendants, crime survivors and victims, and their loved ones.”

Since the lab lost its accreditation, the city has outsourced its crime scene and evidence analysis to federal and private labs. Spokespeople for Bowser did not respond to questions Tuesday about the number of contracts it has paid for as a result of the collapse of its own forensics arm.

The Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia (USAO) said in a statement that the report confirmed concerns it had previously raised about the Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS). It also stressed that it had for years been paying to have firearms retested by outside experts because of the failures at the crime lab. “We are heartened by the Mayor’s call for involving all of the stakeholders in a discussion about how we review the cases that need to be reviewed,” the statement said.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) called for “wholesale changes” at the lab and similarly committed to working with the mayor and other stakeholders on next steps.

“The damning findings in this report indicate that the scope of this review may need to be even more extensive than we had feared, and raise the specter of wrongful convictions dating back years and the re-traumatization of victims of crime,” he said in a statement.

Between early June and late September, SNA said it reviewed 20,000 documents, conducted 49 interviews and received more than 50 anonymous surveys. Its report confirmed long-standing concerns about the firearms examination unit and the latent fingerprint unit, describing examiners in the former unit as “not qualified to render accurate, common source determinations, especially in circumstances in which the data sets were weak.”

The findings were so damning that Geldart acknowledged the city would have to “determine if we even want to bring those back as things that we do inside our lab, or if we outsource those to reputable firms that are doing it now.” Geldart added that the report gave him hope that the lab’s hard-science units, such as chemistry and DNA, are expected to be ready for reaccreditation as early as March.

The SNA report also identified a list of leadership failures from the very top of the agency, asserting, among other missteps, that DFS directors “may have misinterpreted the concept of laboratory independence” to mean that they were not accountable to the clients they served. The firm recommended that the agency meet with its “customers” — defined as agencies such as the D.C. police, USAO and the D.C. attorney general (OAG) — to ensure they are providing adequate services.

Sarah Chu, senior adviser on forensic science policy at the Innocence Project, took issue with the report’s definition of “customer,” which she said included police and prosecutors but not all those affected by the criminal justice system.

“The evidence belongs to the people of DC as a whole. It belongs to the accused as much as it does the accusers,” she said in a statement. “A laboratory cannot be truly independent if its success is measured only by its service to one side of the system.”

The SNA report also detailed deficiencies in the digital evidence unit, which formed in 2017 to examine evidence from phones, computers and other electronic devices. SNA found that the unit had a “lack of competent management practices,” unqualified leadership, an ineffective training program and “unvalidated methods for performing acquisitions, extractions, examinations and analyzes of digital evidence.”

SNA concluded that the agency failed to adequately train its staff across multiple units, had “suspicious” and subpar quality-management practices and, over the years, missed multiple opportunities to correct course. The oversight body tasked with reviewing reports of misconduct and errors, the report found, “has been limited by the lack of clear authority to implement change at the DFS.” It recommended creating an ombudsman to address reports of problems.

The crime lab was once a symbol of pride for the District, launching in 2012 as a cutting-edge facility “with the goal of making forensic science transparent, science-driven and free from prosecutorial or law enforcement influence or politics,” Bowser wrote in a letter at the time.

Since then, the crime lab has come under fire for errors interpreting DNA and firearm analyses and questions about oversight. The agency has twice lost its accreditation and twice had its director step down after problems were revealed.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have long and openly worried that previous mistakes at the DFS could have led to wrongful convictions.

At a public oversight roundtable in October, representatives from the USAO, the OAG and the Public Defender Service in D.C. each committed to launching broad post-conviction reviews but said they needed to see the SNA report to structure their efforts.

Racine has been especially vocal about the urgency of the report’s release, which the city said it received last week but needed time to review. Racine wrote a letter to Geldart on Wednesday demanding the report, which the city had vowed to make public, and threatening legal action.

“Please immediately provide the report to OAG, or we will invoke legal processes to obtain it,” Racine wrote in the letter, later stressing that he had “constitutional and ethical obligations” to review it.

Geldart fired back in a letter to Racine on Friday, writing, “I must say that it seems aimed more at making a public point than advancing our common goal of restoring the viability of DFS operations and focusing on the critical work we do to further public safety in the District.”

Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.

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