D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has commissioned an audit of the city’s new crime lab after forensic experts hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they discovered errors in some of the lab’s DNA analyses, the mayor’s office said Friday.
Bowser (D) has contacted the national governing board for DNA laboratories, the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board, to investigate allegations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the lab has misstated the likelihood that a particular person’s DNA was left at a crime scene. Lab officials have defended their work.
The audit is scheduled to begin Monday. “We share the same goal as the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is to have a quality lab that does work that everyone has confidence in,” said Kevin Donahue, the District’s acting deputy mayor for public safety.
“This is inherently a debate about science, and I want independent scientists to add clarity to help us resolve it,” Donahue said. “They will be in a position, at the end of the audit, to either corroborate that there are areas for improvement, or they will agree that there is reasonable area for disagreement.”
Since January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District has stopped using the lab to evaluate evidence and has instead sent cases to outside labs and hired independent DNA experts to review some 116 cases previously examined by the city-run lab.
DFS Director Max Houck said he “welcomed” the audit by the mayor’s office. “It will be good to have proper auditors come through,” he said.
Houck noted that the FBI also oversaw an audit last year to ensure that the lab was qualified to have access to FBI databases.
Houck has said that the D.C. lab, which is in a $220 million facility in Southwest that opened in 2012, follows the same protocols in place at many city and state labs across the country and that experts may disagree on how to interpret evidence.
Prosecutors say the problems with the analyses have not led to any exonerations or any charges being dismissed. Attorneys say the dispute could trigger appeals or civil lawsuits, but the impact ultimately will depend on how important DNA evidence was in each case.
DFS officials had already been scheduled to attend a hearing Thursday before the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, and committee members said the DNA dispute is sure to be a topic of conversation.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he has been briefed on the issue repeatedly since January and sat in on a meeting last week between the U.S. attorney and the head of the crime lab where the topic was discussed, at what he said was his urging.
“I’m the one who had to bring it up,” Mendelson said. “It was on the agenda, but it was being dealt with in a very superficial way.”
Mendelson, who once chaired the Judiciary Committee, said he is very concerned about the implication from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that there could be errors in cases.
Prosecutors have said they have worked closely with the mayor about their concerns with the lab during the past several months. Last month, the mayor’s office informed prosecutors that it would do its own audit.
“To date, the Mayor’s Office has been very responsive in trying to address our concerns regarding DFS, and we assume that the audit is another step in that direction,” Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Friday. In addition to the review of cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also is conducting its own audit.
The issue involves the analyses of combinations of genetic material from more than one person — such as samples collected from weapons, cars or a victim’s body. The scientists try to tease out who left the DNA. Although TV dramas such as “CSI” make DNA testing look simple, experts said, such disputes are not uncommon, and the industry does not have a single accepted method for interpreting DNA mixtures.
Prosecutors said they first became concerned in September, when they asked an outside expert to look over DNA evidence in a burglary and sexual assault case. They said that person identified problems in the analysis.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who oversees the Judiciary Committee, said he hopes that the scientific community will set a standard methodology in analyzing DNA mixtures.
“That could help prevent these types of disputes,” he said. “There needs to be a standard that everyone agrees with.”
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.